Pawn takes bishop in a curious game of chess between Robert Andrade and La Plaza United Methodist Church in downtown Los Angeles.

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.

The state gave the land to the city, which added it to El Pueblo, an urban park the city was creating. The city gave the church a 50-year lease at $1 a year, which ran out four years ago.

Uneasy parishioners tried off and on over the decades to negotiate a permanent deal with City Hall.

But according to Barron, who is on the church's negotiating committee, the church community never prepared for war over La Plaza United Methodist Church. “Not much was ever done, because we were here — and felt safe,” she says.

In 2006, when the 1956 deal expired, Andrade and employees from the district office of United Methodist Church began discussing a new agreement, but things soon deteriorated.

Shuttering the church is hardly neighborly, but Scott Altman, a professor of property law at USC Law School, says it's not illegal.

“It's a beautiful building,” Altman says. “The question is, what does the city want to do with it? Do they want to tear the church down? Maybe the church can't pay what the city wants.”

It's impossible to pry those answers from secretive overseer Andrade, who was a top budgetary number-cruncher under former City Administrator Bill Fujioka. Andrade, a lifelong bureaucrat who studied education and Latin American studies in college, didn't seem to pick up other key skills—like operating with transparency—along the way.

A Weekly reporter who went to Andrade's office was directed, variously, to each of the building's five floors by employees, including a receptionist, who all but assured that Andrade worked on the second floor, no, the fifth floor, and so on.

Andrade, who is rarely quoted in the media and has a minor presence on Google, finally called to say, “Your inquiry regarding the Methodist church. We have no comment.”

In early December, L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich's office sent the church a troubling new deal: It bans churchgoers from using the 200-seat church basement­; the choir from using the choir loft; and prevents the busy church from opening its doors except for part of one weekday and four hurried hours on Sunday.

One unsettling clause: Andrade, city employee, gets the power of prior approval over all church activities each month.

“We're not signing this document. It's insane,” Barron says. “This confirms what we thought: The city wants to take over the church. They're basically kicking us out. Andrade wants us out. The chitchat I've heard from Diana Martinez is that Andrade wants to put a restaurant and mini-mall in the church.”

True, says Valerie Hanley.

She and her family own Casa California on Olvera Street, and the family has worshipped at the church since 1930. Hanley says the El Pueblo commission wants “to replace [Olvera Street founder Christine] Sterling's vision with gentrification” — almost certainly cookie-cutter chain stores.

Facing a disturbing Christmas season, parishioners must ask City Hall's church key master Andrade for an unusual gift — permission to use their place of worship.

“The Methodist church and this plaza are sacred ground,” says fourth-generation worshipper Arredondo. So much so, they're under lock and key.

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