DOWNEY – Downey residents cried for justice.
City officials promised to deliver it.
The Downey community was reeling this week over news of the Sunday afternoon bulldozing of Johnie’s Broiler, a 1950’s style diner community members had been trying to get designated historic for years.
No permits were pulled for the demolition, which was halted by Downey police at approximately 5:30 p.m. Sunday, according to Downey Police Chief Roy Campos.
Campos, along with a near majority of the Downey City Council, said an investigation was ongoing but promised to prosecute those responsible for the destruction “to the fullest extent of the law.”
The owner of Johine’s Broiler, meanwhile, told The Downey Patriot he was unaware of the demolition, did not authorize it, and was “in shock” when it happened.
“I had no idea they were going to tear Johnie’s down,” Cristos Smyrniotis, a Downey resident himself, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The tenants did something very stupid. They created this mess themselves, tearing down the building with no permits. This is ridiculous.”
Smyrniotis purchased the restaurant, then called Harvey’s Broiler, in 1965 and changed the name to Johnie’s Broiler in 1966. The restaurant closed in 2002 and the property was leased to a used car dealership.
“I’m a victim, too,” Smyrniotis said. “When I [woke] up in the morning, I used to look up and look proudly at Johnie’s and say, ‘That’s my place.’ I’m sad and disappointed. You didn’t have to bulldoze that place. It wasn’t necessary.”
Smyrniotis placed the blame of the destruction on his tenants, whom he (along with police) declined to identify. Smyrniotis said his tenants operated the property and said he personally was against tearing down Johnie’s, at least illegally.
“This is too obvious,” Smyrniotis said, referring to the Sunday afternoon demolition. “I have been building and bulldozing buildings in Downey for 40 years. I know you need permits; it is written in black and white in the lease.”
Smyrniotis also said he told his tenants “not to be afraid of those people,” referring to City Hall officials.
“If you want to do construction, you go to the City and you get permits,” Smyrniotis said. “These city officials are only doing their job.”
Smyrniotis said he was shocked when he got word of the demolition Sunday.
“I was having breakfast with my wife when I got a phone call from the Downey Fire Department,” Smyrniotis told The Patriot. “They said, ‘Are you the owner of Johnie’s Broiler?’ I said yes and they said, ‘You better come down here.’
“So I go down there and the police is there, the fire is there, code enforcement, media. Everybody and their mother is there. I was in shock at the destruction.”
No matter who ordered the demolition, what isn’t in dispute is that bulldozing began on Johnie’s with the gas and electricity still turned on, a fact confirmed by Downey police.
One city official, wishing to remain anonymous, said the workers used in the demolition “were picked up outside the Home Depot.”
Private security has been guarding Johnie’s throughout the week. A city engineer was scheduled to visit the site to inspect damage, officials said.
Johnie’s Broiler, built in 1958, was nominated for historic preservation by the State of California in 2002. That status never went into effect, however, because Smyrniotis never signed the necessary paperwork, Scott Pomrehn, assistant to the Downey city manager, said.
Designating Johnie’s Broiler a historic site, while providing Smyrniotis with various tax benefits, would have placed several restrictions on the property, including drastic limitations on construction.
And that’s something Smyrniotis may have been opposed to, judging from an application Smyrniotis submitted to the city last October seeking to tear down the restaurant and replace it with a food court and strip mall.
When asked about the application, Smyrniotis said his tenants were the ones who made the request, not him, although his signature does appear on the form.
The City of Downey Planning Division ultimately sent a letter to Smyrniotis and his architect, RAS Associates, on November 17, 2006, rejecting the application and calling it “incomplete.” That, city officials said, was the last communication between the city and representatives of Johnie’s Broiler until the demolition on Sunday.
It remains unclear how much of Johnie’s can be salvaged; most of the inside building appears to have been gutted (city officials expressed privately that gutting was probably taking place in small increments over a long period of time) although the famous “Fat Boy” sign remains intact.
Over 100 people packed City Council chambers Tuesday, calling for the prosecution of the persons responsible for the demolition. Residents also asked that Johnie’s be restored to its original state, but this time operating as a restaurant and not a used car dealership.
City Council members expressed similar outrage. Councilman Dave Gafin said he didn’t “want one violation, not matter how minor, to be overlooked. We must send a message.”
Kirk Cartozian said he was in agreement with the audience.
“We have the same opinions as you do,” Cartozian said. “It’s embarrassing what happened…A grave injustice occurred.”
Mario Guerra said he received e-mails about Johnie’s from as far away as Amsterdam. “I cannot believe this is actually happening,” Guerra said. “This is wrong and this will not stand.”
Mayor Rick Trejo said the city will “do everything possible to restore what was there and protect Johnie’s Broiler.”
Councilwoman Anne Bayer said she was reserving comment until the investigation was complete.
The City Council met in closed session Tuesday where they were briefed by the police chief. The council is also said to have discussed their legal options with city attorneys.
Officials said options for Johnie’s include forcing Smyrniotis to restore the restaurant and taking a more determined lead in designating the property historic. Officials said the process would be difficult without Smyrniotis’ consent, however, and likened the process to eminent