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THEATRE — Historic Theater Takes Center Stage in Planning Dispute

For nearly a decade, a “For Sale” sign has been hanging on the south wall of the classic Raymond Theater in Pasadena. According to co-owner Gene Buchanan, that sign has advertised the empty building ever since rock music impresario Gary Folgner was unable to make payments on it and returned the theater to Buchanan. Now, Buchanan and his wife, Marilyn Dee Buchanan, are proposing to turn the 1921 structure, located in the midst of the Old Pasadena Historic District, into retail space, apartments and parking. But they’re finding themselves caught in a firestorm as Pasadena city planners and community activists struggle to find a balance between economic development and historic preservation. The Buchanans’ plan is to eliminate most of the theater’s interior features, including spiral ramps, the remains of fountains in the foyer and an ornate auditorium ceiling with plaster details. A second building would be constructed on what is now the parking lot, giving the project a total of 61 apartments and more than 15,000 square feet of retail and office space. The exterior of the Late Georgian Revival-style theater would remain intact, and Buchanan proposes to restore it by removing the travertine marble fa & #231;ade to uncover the original terra cotta and granite front. He also would eliminate the boxy marquee and restore the original sign, framed with delicate wrought iron. Housing vs. history The proposal comes at a time when the city of Pasadena is looking for more housing to be developed in its central city. Pasadena’s blueprint for the city’s downtown area, of which Old Pasadena is a small part, calls for 5,100 additional units, according to city planner Bill Trimble. “Bringing residents into an area increases the long-term commitment to an area and guarantees activity around the clock,” Trimble said. The draft environmental impact report for the Raymond redevelopment is inconclusive about whether this project is needed to meet housing demand in the area. But Buchanan has his mind made up. “We think there’s a shortfall of housing in Old Pasadena,” he said. “We don’t need any more restaurants, bars or retail.” On the other side is historic preservationist Gina Zamparelli, who has been fighting various proposals for the theater over the past decade. She contends Buchanan has never even tried to restore the property to its original use as a theater. “This is not about a theater being viable or workable. It’s about a developer who won’t let it work,” said Zamparelli, who heads a community organization called Friends of the Raymond. “We buy old buildings and put them into adaptive reuse,” counters Buchanan. “That’s what we’re proposing here.” Indeed, Buchanan, a North Carolinian who moved to Pasadena for its small-town charm, is well known in Old Pasadena for refurbishing several buildings, including two structures he owns directly south of the Raymond Theater. He also cleaned and restored the exterior of the old Union Savings building, with its ornate checkerboard brickwork, at the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Raymond Avenue, and the Exchange Block Building on Colorado. But this is of little comfort to Zamparelli, a concert promoter who used to program events at the theater. While Buchanan refers to the inside of the theater as a “big old box,” Zamparelli calls it “gorgeous.” “Anyone can preserve the front of the building. He’s gutted every single building” he’s worked on, she says. “I’d like to see one project preserved with the integrity of its building and with its integrity historically.” The city process The city’s draft EIR for the redevelopment proposal states that the theater appears to be eligible for designation as a city of Pasadena landmark, and for listing on the California Register of Historic Resources. Because the building has already been designated a “contributing element” within the Old Pasadena National Register Historic District, state law requires the EIR to identify any adverse impacts the proposed redevelopment would have on the structure. The EIR concludes that the proposed mixed-use project would result in unavoidable significant impacts and doesn’t comply with the city’s general plan, its blueprint for development, which calls for preservation of historic structures. Also, the EIR states, proposed alterations to the theater would “severely compromise its historic integrity and make the structure ineligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.” However, a city planner says that statement likely will be taken out of the final report, because it is speculative. A zoning hearing officer will consider the project in mid to late June. For the plan to proceed, he must conclude that the benefits of the project outweigh the unavoidable adverse impacts. The developer says he has been placed in a bind because proposals to purchase or reuse the theater have been unsuccessful over the past decade. Zamparelli says she has brought a minimum of 15 buyers to Buchanan in the past decade. “None could meet his price or his terms,” Zamparelli said. Buchanan says the theater is on sale for $3.5 million and since 1992 he hasn’t received any offers even close to $2 million. “People expect me to donate the Raymond Theater to charity. I should have the right to make a couple bucks here,” Buchanan said.

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