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Turning Up the Heat

John Brunold has worked on more than 600 film and video shoots. There is one job, however, he‘ll never forget. The 43-year-old film technician was on location at the vacant Van de Kamp’s Bakery building in April 1998, working on a video for the Atlanta band Big Hate.

”The whole place was basically filled with pigeon shit,“ recalls Brunold, a key grip. ”About halfway through the shoot, I got a sore throat, and the next day I was sick.“

Brunold suffered from an upper-respiratory infection for a month and was prescribed antibiotics. Though it‘s impossible to link Brunold’s illness to his working conditions that day -- and even though he‘s not aware of anyone else on the shoot becoming sick -- he believes there was a connection. ”If someone offered me a job shooting there again, I would turn it down,“ says Brunold.

In the past month, the city cranked up efforts to force clean-up of the Dutch Renaissance Revival bakery, which has been closed since 1990; the building’s owner, William Zimmerman, assured city officials this week that he will make repairs. It all could be a moot point if developers pushing to replace it with a Lowe‘s home-improvement store and a Burger King win a zoning change on August 10. But historic preservationists, who have been fighting for years to save it, aren’t about to give up. Their latest hope: Turn the bakery at San Fernando Road and Fletcher Avenue into classrooms for a community-college satellite.

Whatever the future holds, why have the conditions at the historic bakery -- broken windows, unsecured entrances, graffiti, trash, and transients using both the interior and exterior of the building as a toilet -- been allowed to persist as long as they have?

According to Ruben Perez, a chief inspector with the city Department of Building and Safety‘s Code Enforcement Bureau, Zimmerman was cited in 1996, and the department believed Zimmerman had been in compliance with the code governing vacant buildings since 1998. Perez also said that no complaints have been received since then.

But an inspection conducted on July 6 revealed problems. Jim Blink, a senior inspector with Building and Safety’s Abandoned Building Task Force, called the 70-year-old building ”one of the worst of the worst,“ and placed the building under the aegis of the barely year-old task force.

Abatement procedures began. On Tuesday, the city received a letter from Zimmerman promising to fix the problems, said Ronald Black, principal inspector for the Abandoned Building Task Force. His letter puts a halt to the abatement process, pending the outcome of next month‘s hearing on the bakery’s future.

The task force was created to deal with hazardous residential and commercial properties, which can have a blighting effect on an entire neighborhood. The task force makes resources available to the owners and tries to assist in expediting the work.

Allowing large commercial properties to decline in such a manner is referred to in preservation circles as ”demolition by neglect,“ according to Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues at the L.A. Conservancy. ”Both city ordinances that deal with the protecting and securing of landmarks, and with the abatement of nuisance properties, help prevent demolition by neglect, which seems to be occurring in this case,“ said Bernstein. ”Deferred maintenance and even encouragement of deterioration are used unfairly as justifications as to why demolition is necessary. There are steps that a responsible property owner can take to prevent deterioration and reverse the neglect. At the very least, graffiti can be removed. Minor repairs can be made, along with the proper cleaning and securing of the property. All of that is something the city should insist upon for our most valued properties, our historical landmarks.“

A caretaker at the property said Zimmerman was out of town and not available for comment.

Developers Larry and Ralph Cimmarusti, who wish to develop the site, say that demolishing the bakery and putting in new construction will yield jobs, tax dollars and shopping convenience to the community, as well as eliminate a neighborhood eyesore.

But activists, including the Coalition to Save Van de Kamp‘s Bakery, are loathe to see the destruction of an architecturally significant building in the aesthetically starved section of northeast Los Angeles, and are insisting on an adaptive re-use of the property. They say more big-box development is not what the community wants or needs, and point to the fact that there are already two Home Depot home-improvement stores situated within 2 12 miles of the site in either direction on San Fernando Road.

The Cimmarustis’ Lucia Properties is in escrow on the $6 million property. The results of their request for a zoning change in order that the project may proceed was due to be announced at a public meeting on July 13, but the Cimmarusti brothers requested a continuance. The new date is August 10, at 9:30 a.m., in the second-floor hearing room at 201 N. Figueroa St.

State Senator Richard Polanco is in favor of preserving the building, and in May requested $4 million from the state budget to open at the site a satellite community college, which would focus on job training, English classes for non--native speakers, and literacy training. Governor Gray Davis rejected $1 million of the request, and imposed conditions on the release of the other $3 million for the school.

Still, the money is seen as a victory by preservationists. ”We‘re thrilled the state Legislature has supported funding for educational use at this site,“ said Bernstein of the Conservancy. ”They recognize that one of the reasons this site is so attractive is the presence of a landmark structure, and its potential to combine renovation of a much-valued building with new construction on the site that truly serves the needs of the community.“

Brunold, the grip who became ill while working at Van de Kamp’s, is a Silver Lake resident and is opposed to big-box development. He makes an effort to patronize smaller hardware stores. He is not convinced a college campus is the best solution -- he cites potentially horrendous traffic conditions at that intersection -- but says, ”The beauty of Silver Lake and the surrounding areas is the smaller, privately owned businesses. I would rather see a rehabilitated Van de Kamp‘s building than a Lowe’s store.“

Brunold was quick to add, ”But if they leave it like it is and continue to have film shoots there, it should be torn down. It is unhealthy for anyone to be in those conditions.“