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History in the Baking 

Demolition threatens another L.A. landmark

Wednesday, Oct 20 1999
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It has been nearly 10 years since the once-grand Van de Kamp’s Bakery at the corner of Fletcher Drive and San Fernando Road shut its doors. The 1930 factory, the only example of Dutch Renaissance Revival architecture in Los Angeles, now languishes in decay amid a sea of broken glass, its red-tile roof and stepped gables covered in graffiti and pigeon excrement.

Once known as the “Taj Mahal of bakeries,” the poured-in-place concrete structure, built by architect J. Edward Hopkins, employed more than 500 people in its heyday, when it served as headquarters for the chain of 100 retail stores that shared similar Dutch themes; now, only transients and taggers are to be found. The factory closed in October 1990 after Van de Kamp‘s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy-court protection.

Now, it is at the center of a bitter community dispute. Developers want to tear it down and build a 136,000-square-foot HomeBase and a Burger King. Local residents, preservationists and a coalition of 19 community groups oppose the construction of yet another generic “big box” structure in their neighborhood. They would like to see the landmark saved in the manner of the Helm’s Bakery in Culver City or the Uniroyal Tire Factory, whose facade became the focal point for the Citadel retail-store outlet off the 5 freeway in Commerce.

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The developers -- Ralph and Larry Cimmarusti -- and the Glassell Park Improvement Association say the old factory is an eyesore that needs to go. They say the community would benefit from the 350 jobs and the tax dollars that a new development would bring.

“We did extensive research on the site, and if we could save it we would,” says Larry Cimmarusti, who was born in Glassell Park and now lives in La Cañada--Flintridge. He and his brother own 140 Burger King and Tony Roma‘s franchises. The project won the support of the 300-member Glassell Park Improvement Association. “The bakery is an eyesore and a real criminal and safety hazard,” says Joan Lundy, association president.

Though the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission declared the site a city historic-cultural monument in 1992, praising it as an unequaled example of how architecture can give a company public identification, by 1997 the group of Mayor Richard Riordan‘s appointees declined to oppose demolition, saying in a unanimous 4-0 vote that the factory was vandalized beyond redemption. By that time, the City Council had also downgraded the historic designation to include only the building’s Dutch facade.

Ken Bernstein, the director of preservation issues for the L.A. Conservancy, calls it a classic instance of “demolition by neglect.

”Frequently, owners of historical properties will allow the building to decline, and not take steps to clean up graffiti and the worst visual components, to a point where it begins to generate a clamor for its demolition. We believe that attitude rewards poor stewardship of historic property, and should not be rewarded.“

Bernstein also points to the fact that a Home Depot is 2.5 miles north of the proposed HomeBase site on San Fernando Road, while another Home Depot is under construction 2.3 miles south on the same street. ”If there is a shakedown in the home-improvement field, it‘s quite possible northeast Los Angeles could be losing one of its few notable landmarks for a use that might not endure for the long term, leaving the community with an empty big box.“ Bernstein says his office has been contacted by a company interested in converting the factory to livework loft space, which he says would be ideal.

The Cimmarusti brothers are in escrow on the property. One condition for the sale is a satisfactory environmental report, which state law requires whenever a ”significant alteration“ is made to a historically designated building. The developers initially sought ways to avoid the environmental report, but acceded to the L.A. Conservancy’s demand for one. A draft report should come out in the next 30 to 60 days. After a 45-day public-comment period, the developers will have at least a month to respond to any issues. The final decision will be made by the associate zoning administrator, after a public hearing.

It was not easy to support demolition, says Kaye Beckham, who runs a home health-care service and has been a member of the Cultural Heritage Commission since Riordan assumed office. ”The commission felt very badly about not opposing the demolition permit, but the building is a huge eyesore, and almost burned down when some transients started a fire inside to keep warm. It‘s a danger.“

According to Jay Oren, the commission’s staff architect, who wrote the initial report recommending that the building be declared a landmark, the building is structurally sound underneath all the graffiti, but needs seismic retrofitting. This is confirmed in the developers‘ own studies of the site; however, HomeBase, with its need for heavy-duty shelving, would need to reinforce the floor of the factory, adding additional cost to the project. No HomeBase real estate specialists were available for comment.

Among the bakery’s defenders is Gretchen Spence, a member of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Association and the Coalition To Save Van de Kamp‘s Bakery.

”The Cultural Heritage Commission says there’s spray paint on it, there‘re broken windows, we need to tear down the building -- that’s crazy,“ Spence says. The coalition, formed eight weeks ago by Andrew Garsten and Netty Carr, boasts the support of 19 organizations, including residents‘ associations from Atwater Village, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Angelino Heights and Eagle Rock, as well as the Silver Lake Chamber of Commerce and the Eastside Regional Arts Council. They have collected 750 signatures on a petition opposing the HomeBase. The coalition wants a project more in keeping with the community, such as a movie theater or an arts complex in combination with a sit-down restaurant, or even sound stages for a movie studio. (The factory has been used as a location in videos thus far to depict blighted areas.)

Opponents say the community should have the power to keep out a project it doesn’t want, citing traffic issues and worries that the project would attract too many day laborers looking for jobs. The developers say they plan to widen the intersection to handle more traffic.

Miki Jackson is a member of the Community Planning Advisory Committee, which put together the Northeast Development Plan adopted on June 15 by the City Council. The plan calls for design standards and other general requirements for new projects, but does little to address the conflict now facing the community.

”The Northeast is kind of a redlined area that‘s designated as a dumping ground for the whole city,“ Jackson says. ”It isn’t like people in this community don‘t have money. They go to Old Town Pasadena for movies and to dine at restaurants.“

She says ways must be found to keep the money from leaving the community.

”We need a better restaurant -- not a Burger King,“ Jackson says. ”To listen to the developers, you’d think Burger King was the rebirth of Lawry‘s. This is an area that can support good businesses, and the first people who figure that out and put a few nice restaurants, theaters and bookstores in this area are going to do very well.“

Councilman Mike Hernandez, who represents the Glassell Park district, says developers have come and gone over the last six years. ”This is not a new project to me, and the abandonment of the land [by the current owner, William Zimmerman] is not excusable. With any project, there needs to be a balance between jobs, housing and open space. If there cannot be an agreement between all sides, then it is not a project I want to expedite.“

According to Hernandez, a movie-theater chain is currently exploring a 20-acre site farther south down San Fernando Road, near the Taylor railroad yards. ”I don’t appreciate having to travel to Glendale, Burbank or Pasadena to see a movie, and I don‘t think my neighbors do, either. There is a tremendous void here that needs to be filled, and as gaps get filled others become more attractive. The property value on that site continues to grow, and with more media and technical companies locating nearby, along with the greening of the river, I feel there will eventually be a reuse that will satisfy the community.“

The debate over saving the building sounds all too familiar to Dorothy Miller, who worked for Van de Kamp’s in the summer of 1942 as a fresh-faced 18-year-old. She still has her uniform of a starched white apron and cap. ”I bemoan the fact that we tear down these older buildings with such frequency, especially ones so associated with the history of Los Angeles. There are very few of these landmarks left.“

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