By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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Andrade is the general manager of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority, the monument including Olvera Street's collection of souvenir shops and restaurants, as well as museums, historic buildings — and an operating Methodist church. El Pueblo, as the area is called, is tucked between Union Station and Chinatown on city land that was L.A.'s original 1800s settlement.
Andrade, appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, answers to the nine-member El Pueblo Board of Commissioners, all political appointees of the mayor. The board oversees the 44-acre historic monument, restaurants, stalls, shops and other tenants, and decides what happens to its five museums and 28 historic buildings.
Andrade and the tiny city department that controls those 44 acres spend about $7 million a year. To many, their mission is murky.
"We're not in lockstep with what's going on down there," says Rick Coca, aide to City Councilman José Huizar. "Sometimes [Andrade] has to come to the City Council for approval. It's a convoluted dance."
On Nov. 4, new locks appeared on the doors of La Plaza United Methodist Church, a dominating 1926 structure with a fabulous green-and-gold bell tower.
Trouble is, neither the pastor nor any of the 150 congregants has the new key. Only city employee Andrade does. He's now locking the congregation and pastor out for all but a few hours each week during the time leading up to their traditional Christmas holiday activities and services.
"We're homeless. Churchless," says fourth-generation parishioner Aida Arredondo. "It's going to get ugly, but we're going to try to maintain our Christian values."
The ugliness began Nov. 3, when the Rev. Abel S. Lara was sweeping the sanctuary. L.A. city-paid security guards showed up — and escorted the shocked pastor from his church.
The parishioners had worshipped next door at the Mexican Cultural Institute from June to mid-November while a city team painted and placed new carpet in the church. Parishioners who had attended a big Nov. 14 rededication to celebrate the renovations were outraged by the surprise lockout, and they gave an earful to El Pueblo commissioners at an emotional Nov. 18 meeting.
In response, the commission — made up of Herbert Siguenza, Angel Cervantes, Felicia Fasano, Carol Jacques, David W. Louie, Timothy R. Martella, Norma Navarro and Lisa See — granted them three consecutive 30-day permits to use the church until an agreement can be reached.
At the meeting, Cervantes asked Andrade if he would provide church leaders with a key for the lock. Andrade answered, "Yes."
No, church folks say.
One church leader, Leonora Barron, says that the day after the meeting, Diana Martinez, the El Pueblo authority's assistant general manager, approached as Barron was giving a church tour to USC students and "said there was concern over the prevalence of carbon monoxide" — an odd comment since the church gas was turned off last year.
Two days later, when 150 churchgoers arrived for services on Nov. 21, they found a locked door. Security guards mentioned carbon monoxide to the upset people in the crowd. Somebody called the police. Somebody else called District 14 City Councilman Huizar.
Barron says church members then were informed that the consecutive 30-day permits didn't allow members inside: "It only allowed us to negotiate."
Reached at home that chilly Sunday, Huizar insisted that Andrade's underlings let the people in. But the moment Rev. Lara's sermon ended, the families, elderly and children were shooed out by Andrade's security people.
"This church and its members are an integral part of El Pueblo's past, present and future," Huizar says. "I would take serious issue with anyone or any governing body that would suggest otherwise or act to diminish the church's standing at El Pueblo."
Raul Gordillo, spokesman for the Southern California Gas Company, says there have been zero incidents of gas leaks in the church or the entire area around it.
"We've checked all our phone calls and we haven't had any inquiries about carbon monoxide from the church or anyone around the church," Gordillo says.
The dispute appears to be driven in part by real estate executive David W. Louie, an El Pueblo commissioner who suggested at an Oct. 28 commission meeting that the church start coughing up thousands more than the $1 annual rent it pays. Louie, a vice president with CB Richard Ellis Inc., manages hundreds of sales and leases in the L.A. region.
Louie could be setting the city up for a costly legal battle if he pushes the idea that the city is subsidizing the church — and demands that the congregation pay a downtown market-rate rent. The top courts in California, in Gerritsen vs. City of Los Angeles, have already ruled that this church's $1 rent is "not an impermissible religious entanglement."
The dispute has deep roots. In 1956, when the city was on a "redevelopment" tear, snatching up private land in poor Latino areas sitting in the way of "progress" — Chavez Ravine being the most infamous — the state of California used eminent domain to take ownership of the church's longtime land.