In June 1996, after two years of controversy and without obtaining a demolition permit or complying with a host of laws that protect historic resources in Los Angeles and throughout California, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles set out to tear down the city`s most historic church. Faced with no alternative, the Los Angeles Conservancy countered with lawsuits and 14 consecutive favorable rulings over a nine-month period -- a process that has affirmed both the landmark status of the cathedral and the obligation of the archdiocese and the City of Los Angeles to follow the law. Today, St.Vibiana`s still stands, but it remains threatened.
The Los Angeles controversy between church and preservation is anything but unique. Since 1974, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has participated in at least ten legal cases to defend the authority of local governments to "landmark" historic religious properties, including the submission of an amicus curiae brief in the first St. Vibiana lawsuit.
New York, for example, has witnessed an epic battle over the Bertram Goodhue-designed Community House of St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church. The church proposed selling the property and its air rights to realize income from a planned office tower. Denied a demolition permit, the church raised First Amendment and other issues. Finally the courts determined that the dispute was centrally about property rights and that religious beliefs did not excuse compliance with generally applicable laws. Therefore, under the city`s landmarks laws, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission had the legal right to prohibit demolition of the historic structure.
In Boerne, Texas, another battle still rages and is now before the United States Supreme Court. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio wants to tear down the 74-year-old St. Peter sanctuary and build a larger facility behind the facade. The archdiocese has sued the town and argues that the denial to demolish the sanctuary violates the 1933 Religious Freedom Act (RFRA), which states that the government shall not substantially burden a person`s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability unless the government demonstrates a compelling interest. The City of Boerne has responded by challenging the constitutionality of RFRA itself. Amicus briefs in the case argue that if churches are exempted by this act, "it may render local communities unable to prevent the destruction of historically important structures and unable to enforce zoning laws against religious institutions."
However, the case before the Supreme Court will not address the fundamental preservation issue of whether the City of Boerne`s preservation ordinance infringes upon the archdiocese`s free exercise of religion. The National Trust amicus brief states that the "denial of a building permit imposes no substantial burden on the church`s free exercise of rights and therefore the RFRA does not apply."
Just as RFRA has become a lightning rod for property rights activists in Boerne, churches in several other cities -- Washington; Berkeley, California; Ypsilanti, Michigan; and Cumberland, Maryland -- have challenged local landmarks laws under this act.
In Los Angeles, the effort to save historic St. Vibiana has raised similar issues (although not under RFRA): the value of preserving a historic resource given the prospect of a replacement more suited to contemporary needs; the utility of the building in its current condition; the long- term stewardship obligation of the archdiocese; and the application of land use regulations to religious institutions. Catholicism and modernism have been so closely intertwined with Los Angeles` history and self-image that the disagreement over whether to replace St. Vibiana -- the city`s first and only cathedral -- with one promised to be splendid and "modern" has challenged the traditional, local views of church prerogatives as well as public consensus about the city`s architectural heritage.
Despite the successful conclusion of the Los Angeles Conservancy`s lawsuits, the cathedral remains threatened. The archdiocese will construct a new, $50 million cathedral complex designed by the celebrated winner of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, Rafael Moneo, on another downtown site. But the archdiocese and the city have not lost interest in St. Vibiana; both continue to pursue the demolition of the cathedral. The city is now preparing an environmental impact report (EIR) which calls for delisting the historic cathedral as Historic-Cultural Monument No. 17, demolition of the structure, and clearance of the site. The EIR is expected to be completed before the end of the year.
Meanwhile the Conservancy is also working hard, focusing on identifying a use appropriate to the religious and cultural memory of the city`s oldest religious structure and then quickly finding a viable user. As a result, the next six to twelve months will be critical in determining the fate of St. Vibiana.
So far, the Conservancy has completed a reuse study for the cathedral, its ancillary buildings (the Rectory and education buildings) and the 100,000-square-foot site. The study identifies nine potential alternate uses for the property and the economics of each use. Through the reuse study, an accompanying exhibition, and broad efforts to market the property, the Conservancy hopes to demonstrate that the cathedral should be preserved and incorporated as part of the redevelopment of the site.
Until this drama began to unfold, the Cathedral of St. Vibiana had been one of the most important but perhaps least known of Los Angeles` downtown landmarks. The cathedral was constructed in 1876, when Los Angeles was little more than dusty trading post. It was the first civic landmark in every sense. It was built to accommodate nearly 1,200 worshipers, when the entire city`s population was only 9,000 people. Located at the center of Main Street, it was a dominant point on the city skyline for more than 75 years, until height restrictions for new buildings were lifted in 1958.
Architecturally, the cathedral is an imposing, Victorian-era homage to a small parish church in Barcelona, Spain, from which the beloved founding bishop of the Los Angeles Archdiocese had come. The cathedral was built as a rather remarkable community act, with support drawn from founding Los Angeles families of every denomination. Its design and development were intended to symbolize the powerful ambitions of the early community. The cathedral was one of the first of 635 historic structures to be designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument following the adoption of the city`s Cultural Heritage Ordinance in 1962, and it has always been an important stop on the Los Angeles Conservancy`s downtown walking tours.
Sadly -- and although the cathedral is one of the few truly great inspirational spaces in Los Angeles -- St. Vibiana is now rather isolated and surrounded by parking lots. The focus of downtown has shifted strongly to the north and west, with very limited reinvestment in this area of the city`s historic center. Although St. Vibiana is the seat of the largest Catholic archdiocese in the United States (the Los Angeles Archdiocese represents 4.5 million people in five Southern California counties), attendance at the cathedral had dropped to about 150 active parishioners. Nonetheless, the cathedral is two blocks from Los Angeles City Hall, one block from the Los Angeles Times complex and is the hinge property between the Los Angeles Civic Center, the emerging Little Tokyo community, and the historic commercial district to the south on Broadway and Spring Streets.
The active threat to St. Vibiana began early in 1995 when Cardinal Roger M. Mahony announced plans for the "Cathedral Square," a $40 million complex intended to provide space for 3,000 worshipers to be completed by the year 2000, in celebration of the millennium. The archdiocese plans included the demolition of the historic cathedral. To justify the demolition of the landmark, the Archbishop cited liturgical changes, seismic damage, site constraints, and a desire to have a monument befitting the contemporary archdiocese. The project received unqualified support from the Los Angeles government and business community.
The Conservancy also endorsed the concept of building a new cathedral complex at the historic site, but immediately began discussion with the Cardinal and his representatives to prevent the demolition of the historic cathedral. From the outset, the Conservancy expressed flexibility and proposed adapting the cathedral to integrate with the functions and design envisioned for the new complex. It also joined with 12 of the leading preservation organizations, historical societies and architectural associations active in southern California to form the Coalition to Preserve St. Vibiana`s. The Society of Architectural Historians, the Southern California Historical Society, the Preservation Committee of the Los Angeles Chapter of the AIA, the California Preservation Foundation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are part of the coalition.
Cooperative discussions with the archdiocese led to a jointly convened and funded workshop in February 1996 to address the concerns for the archdiocese with respect to the reuses of the cathedral
and its inclusion as part of the new project. The preservation funding match was provided by the Historic Preservation Partners for Earthquake Response. The primary focus of the workshop addressed
liturgy changes and the perceived obsolescence of St. Vibiana; seismic repair costs; site constraints; and architectural excellence. In each case, the workshop found retaining and incorporating St. Vibiana feasible. The archdiocese, however, continued to favor demolition.
The sequence of events associated with the purported seismic damage to the cathedral ultimately strengthened the Conservancy`s legal case. Although the Northridge Earthquake of January 17, 1994 caused extensive damage throughout the Los Angeles region, few downtown structures were affected. The cathedral remained open for the next 16 months. Even following the archdiocese`s announcement of the new cathedral complex, the cathedral remained open for masses and major events for another four months. President Clinton visited the cathedral and attended Palm Sunday Mass in April 1995. Then, the archdiocese closed the cathedral, claiming the earthquake damage was more severe than it had previously thought.
One year later, the archdiocese instigated a Building and Safety Department review following a minor seismic event that had not damaged any other building in the entire Los Angeles Basin. Following
a 30-minute visual inspection of the cathedral`s exterior, the city issued an abatement order at 5 p.m., Friday, May 31, stating that the bell tower constituted an imminent hazard. The order directed the archdiocese to abate the hazard within 72 hours. By dawn the next morning, the archdiocese had assembled a full-scale demolition crew complete with wrecking balls to demolish the historic cathedral`s bell tower. Through a dramatic series of car phone conversations, Jack Rubens, an LA Conservancy board member and attorney, determined that no demolition permit had been issued and persuaded the Building and Safety Department to halt the demolition. Later that afternoon, after the Building and Safety Department made the unprecedented announcement of its intention to issue a demolition permit by 7:00 a.m. Sunday morning, the Conservancy obtained an oral, temporary restraining order from a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.
The Los Angeles Conservancy had to file two lawsuits to prevent the demolition of the historic cathedral. This was only the third time in the Conservancy`s 19-year existence that it had gone to court. As a citywide advocacy organization, the Conservancy has been very successful in working out "win-win" solutions for the owners of historic properties and Los Angeles` significant buildings and neighborhoods. The Conservancy was responsible for the multi-year effort to preserve and then reuse the great Los Angeles Central Library.
The two lawsuits turned on the issues of whether the archdiocese was required to obtain a demolition permit and comply with the city`s Cultural Heritage Ordinance and the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in order to demolish a designated building. The first lawsuit challenged the city`s unsupported determination that the cathedral`s bell tower constituted an imminent hazard and was therefore exempt from CEQA requirements, the city`s Cultural Heritage Ordinance and a state law that prevents the hasty demolition of earthquake-damaged historic structures.
After the trial court concluded that the bell tower did not constitute an imminent hazard and issued a preliminary injunction to prevent further demolition, the Los Angeles City Council voted 14-1 to delist the cathedral as a Historic-Cultural Monument. In a second effort to exempt demolition from the CEQA review, within three hours after the city council formally delisted the cathedral, the Building and Safety Department issued a demolition permit for the entire structure. The Conservancy filed a second lawsuit based on the city`s failure to prepare a full EIR for the delisting and proposed demolition. The trial court agreed and issued a second preliminary injunction.
After the trial courts issued injunctions in both lawsuits, the archdiocese and the city filed a total of seven petitions and appeals with the state court of appeals and the California Supreme Court in an effort to overturn the preliminary injunctions. Their appeals focused more sharply on religious issues. In the only full-blown opinion (all the other petitions were summarily denied), the court of appeals held that the archdiocese had failed to present a shred of evidence that a delay in the demolition would substantially burden the archdiocese`s exercise of religion. The courts consistently held that CEQA had not been followed and that the building did not pose an imminent threat. They were also impressed by expert testimony provided by an array of California and the nation`s leading experts in architectural history, urban planning and historic preservation, including Thomas S. Hines of UCLA and Vincent Scully of Yale University who eloquently testified to the cathedral`s architectural and historic merit. The Conservancy`s case was forcefully argued on a pro bono basis by a team of lawyers from a major Los Angeles firm, Shepphard, Mullin Richter & Hampton.
As a backdrop to the court battle, unrelenting media coverage reflected the tremendous presence of the archdiocese in Los Angeles. Headings such as "Cardinal Sins: High Noon with Mahony," and "Conservancy Plays Underdog in Battle to Save Cathedral" captured public attention in all the metropolitan area news media. The time and coverage involved served to bring out the facts of the case and caused many Angelenos to think about the character of their city and the conduct of urban development. Support for the Conservancy`s position increased as its legal victories mounted; its membership grew by nearly 15 percent.
When the archdiocese was unsuccessful in the litigation and was unable to purchase land adjacent to the cathedral at a reasonable price, the archdiocese abandoned the cathedral site and selected a new location at the edge of Bunker Hill, the extensive urban renewal area that houses most of the downtown office towers, the Music Center, and many government buildings.
The city is now preparing an EIR for the delisting and demolition of St. Vibiana. On its own initiative, the city included the proposed delisting in the EIR. If the city does lawfully delist the cathedral, the city`s Cultural Heritage Commission would have no opportunity to delay the proposed demolition (for an initial period of up to 180 days) under the Cultural Heritage Ordinance. This power to require a time period for consideration of alternatives and reuse is the linchpin of the ordinance.
The Los Angeles Conservancy allocated $25,000 from its operating revenues to the reuse study for the cathedral. The archdiocese has cooperated with the preparation of the study by permitting documents and plans. Some of the most prominent firms in architecture and economic development in Southern California have worked collaboratively on a pro bono basis through the coordination of the University of Southern California School of Architecture to develop schematic-level architecture and economic concepts for the reuse of the historic buildings and site. The market value of the services provided
by the 16 firms is estimated to have exceeded $250,000.
The potential new uses for the cathedral include reuse as a multi-denominational faith center, adaptation to a music hall conservatory, integration of the cathedral as a part of a larger complex for the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, the development of senior citizen housing and a community center, adaptation to a Japanese cultural and electronic trade facility, and adaptation and new development to establish a hotel and cultural facility.
Several of these possible uses have already elicited expressions of interest. The Conservancy and its allied team of design and development specialists are working to facilitate this interest in the property. The first task is to persuade the archdiocese that the cathedral site has greater economic and cultural value with the structures intact than as a vacant lot. In order to realize any of these opportunities, there must be ample time to develop a solution. The rush to demolish the property could eliminate potential investors who could take advantage of the rehabilitation tax credits and other financial incentives available to developers of historic properties.
The saga of St. Vibiana will develop actively over the next six to twelve months. This drama in Los Angeles has again raised the challenge of how to honor both our culture and our religious institutions. An appropriate reuse of the Cathedral of St. Vibiana will eventually demonstrate that historic preservation and religious organizations can live together productively and positively. The reused St. Vibiana will be the latest expression of a profoundly important cultural property leading to broader community regeneration. If successful, it may hold promise for other communities struggling with challenges to their historic religious properties.
Publication Date: Summer 1997