Rives Mansion gets OK for controversial renovation

PHOTO BY ALEX DOMINGUEZ

PHOTO BY ALEX DOMINGUEZ

DOWNEY - A controversial plan that will see Downey’s historic Rives Mansion converted into office space was tediously approved by the Planning Commission early Thursday morning.

Current mansion owners Erika De La Teja and her husband had their work cut out for them entering Wednesday’s hearing, having submitted plans to refurbish and convert the residential home into nine commercial office spaces, along with constructing a new 1,200 square foot coffee shop and juice bar retail café.

It took several hours and a handful of added conditions for the evening’s highest profile agenda item to come to a conclusion, with the final 3-2 vote (Chairman Steve Dominguez and Commissioner Patrick Owens opposed) not coming until shortly after midnight.

De La Teja said that she was “semi-happy with the results.”

“I think there’s a lot of conditions that were added that will negatively impact the construction process, but overall I’m happy,” said De La Teja. “Just cost issues.”

If there was one thing that most in the room agreed on, it was that residential use of the mansion was no longer feasible.

In fact, most of the residents who chose to address the commission seemed generally in favor of the proposed commercial use of the historic building.

The proposed café, however, garnered significant pushback.

The café was referred to as everything from an “abomination” to an “eyesore,” with some feeling that its location obstructed the view and therefore took away from the mansion.

However, staff said that the café’s location had been selected after all other options – including the widely preferred north-eastern corner of the property – had been exhausted.

According to staff, already existing elements in that area of the public right-of-way complicated any placement of the café in the preferred corner, including manhole covers, a street light, and an awkwardly positioned street crossing.

Dominguez said that the café was “destroying the beauty, the value, and the aesthetic, and the history.”

“We take a look at the property, its historical value, the photographic rendering, I’ll be honest with you, if it was me I’d take a look at that and say, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?,’” said Dominguez. “Really, if you’re sincere in wanting to maintain the Rives Mansion, then why are we dealing with this retail eyesore?”

Owens added that “preserving the mansion at all cost is the plan.”

“To me, this is the last ‘welcome to Downey’ icon outside of McDonald’s,” said Owens. “But McDonald’s is McDonald’s; this is the mansion.”

However, De La Teja and her husband claim that the café is necessary for them to make revenue.

De La Teja after the meeting said that she wished the new cafe was on the north-east side, however, it was “not her call.” She added that calling the building an eyesore was “a little bit harsh.”

“I do feel it’s going to be a beautiful building,” said De La Teja.

Before the final vote, Vice Chair Miguel Duarte said that this was “probably the best-case scenario for the current property.”

“This is a give and take,” said Duarte. “Everybody wants to see the mansion restored…how do we do that? The applicant is willing to restore that property, have it for office use, but to make it a viable project there has to be some retail aspect because this is a business.”

“I think I agree with most the commissioners here, it’s not ideal, the location. I have to take what the staff is saying at face, saying it’s just not feasible in the north-east corner…”

In an attempt to keep the owners honest and accountable, the café will also only initially be able to operate on a 90-day permit until refurbishment of the historical structures is completed.

Both the café and office space will operate from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Another issue was that of public access to the building, with many – especially Commissioners Owens and Jimmy Spathopoulos – feeling that the building should still provide educational opportunities.

It was therefore decided by the commission that the owners will need to coordinate with the Downey Conservancy, Downey Historical Society, or some other qualified historical entity for quarterly tours to be open to the public.

De La Teja said that she had no issue with this, saying “it was always going to be public access on the grounds.”

“That was always going to be public access anyways because of the café,” said De La Teja. “In reality, if the city wants to provide somebody that can tour it for the public, I don’t see a problem with that.

“It’s a landmark so I’d assume people would be curious and they’d want to see it…it doesn’t bother us.”

NewsAlex Dominguez