Group pushes for input on Avenue Theatre, mayor pushes back

DOWNEY - A testy exchange between Mayor Mario Guerra and a young Downey resident Tuesday night served to highlight the growing acrimony between city officials and members of the public wanting to restore the Avenue Theatre into an arts and cultural complex.Downey resident Jared Head, speaking during the public comment portion of Tuesday's City Council meeting, accused the City Council and its staff of being secretive in regards to proposed redevelopment of the Avenue Theatre and the downtown. Head, the owner of a local comedy group, said the Council "seems not to care" about public input and questioned their communication skills. As evidence, he pointed to a recent story in the Downey Patriot depicting a proposed redevelopment of the Gourmet Café property, which reported the restaurant owner had no knowledge of the plans. Guerra, speaking loudly and clearly agitated, denied the allegations. Guerra said Tuesday's hiring of a planning firm would open discussions of future downtown developments. Part of the city's deal with Hogle-Ireland for a new downtown site plan calls for at least two public "kick-off sessions" and "community outreach." Guerra also said a seismic retrofit of the Avenue Theatre would cost millions, a fact corroborated by City Manager Gerald Caton. According to Caton, the city paid for the Avenue to meet the minimum seismic retrofit requirements in 1994, but those requirements have since become more stringent. Regarding Gourmet Café, Guerra said it was the responsibility of the property owner to inform his tenant of redevelopment plans. The city of Downey agreed to pay $1.23 million to purchase the Avenue Theatre on May 12, 2008. Two weeks later, the city agreed to pay an additional $1 million for the nearby Verizon building. Both properties were abandoned, but while the Verizon building was generally considered to be in good condition, the 75-year-old Avenue Theatre was literally crumbling from the inside, officials said. Since news of the city's purchases broke, residents began a campaign to "save the Avenue Theatre." An online petition started by local preservationist George Redfox is seeking the Avenue's restoration to be used as a "historical and cultural meeting place" and boasted more than 470 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon. (Some have questioned the validity of the petition's electronic signatures; line No. 380, for example, lists a signature under the name "M Guerra" which the mayor denies is his.) Other residents have expressed their own ideas for the Avenue: requests have been varied and include a jazz club, an amateur comedy club, a theater for Shakespearian plays, dinner theater, an independent movie house, and even a private screening studio for film production companies. Some have also called for the Avenue's full restoration and would like to see it function as a 1-screen movie theater playing independent films, a move city officials called unrealistic. Restoring the Avenue Theater does not make good economic sense, said Gilbert Livas, the city's deputy city manager for community development. Livas provided this newspaper a tour of the Avenue Theatre recently, and pointed to its dilapidating conditions. A restoration of the Avenue would probably mean tearing down the building and starting from the ground up, Livas said. Besides that, the Avenue has already failed as a movie theater. He also disputed the Avenue's stature as a historical community element. "Sometimes, a building is just old," he said. City officials contend that they actually saved the Avenue Theatre from its demise. A developer planned to turn the theater into a banquet hall several years ago, but the deal ended up in litigation. The developer won in court but eventually agreed to sell the property to the city, Livas said. "What people don't know is, we actually saved the theater from being demolished," Livas said. "If you look at the site plans, you wouldn't have even recognized the Avenue Theatre. At least we're going to preserve the marquee." City officials also questioned why nobody attempted to save the Avenue Theatre then. "I think people are speaking up now because the city owns the property," Livas said. "They think we can do whatever we want with it, but we can't." Livas said the city is currently in negotiations with nonprofit developer National Core for the construction of a mixed commercial and residential project. Any construction at the Avenue would need to incorporate housing because the city used a federal block grant that requires affordable housing to purchase the land. For his part, Livas said he envisions an upscale restaurant at the 9,240 square foot Avenue Theatre. A portion could be set aside as "community space," although what that exactly means will need to be worked out in negotiations. The outside Avenue Theatre signage would be preserved, Livas said. At the Verizon property, Livas said he could see "high-quality condominiums with subterranean parking." To qualify for a unit, prospective tenants would need to meet income guidelines and pass criminal, employment and rental background checks. Fernando Vasquez, a planning commissioner for Downey, is also a development manager for National Core. While he isn't involved in negotiations, he said National Core requires tenants to open their homes for inspections every 6-12 months. Not everyone is convinced, however. "There's plenty of room on other lots for condos, why does it have to be in the main part of town, where the art and culture should be?" said Redfox, the preservationist. "We don't oppose condos, just not there." Redfox said most successful downtowns incorporate an art and cultural center because they tend to attract residents from nearby cities. The same would be especially true in Downey, Redfox said. "I think a lot of people would support it because this is a very underserved area for that," said Redfox, a teacher at Warren High School. "Everything is at least 15 miles away." "The community of Downey and surrounding communities would definitely support an arts/cultural center," said Kathy Perez, a Downey resident who said her memories of the Avenue Theater span more than 30 years. "We would support all of the arts that could be accommodated in these theaters (including) movies, live stage, and the visual arts. Movies could include all genres from the past and present, from many different cultures and languages. Film festivals could range from independent films, classics from each decade of the 20th century, (and) films from so many countries; from Latin America to Asia, to children's animated and feature length films." As negotiations with National Core continue, the City Council has already laid the groundwork for redevelopment downtown. On Tuesday, the Council agreed to submit an application that seeks nearly $700,000 from Congress. If the application is approved, as expected, the city will use the money to demolish the Verizon property. Also on Tuesday, the city appropriated $325,000 and tapped planning firm Hogle-Ireland to create a new specific plan and environmental impact report for Downtown Downey.

********** Published: June 12, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 8