Rev. Alex Franco, who founded Wilshire Boulevard's Albertson Wedding Chapel in 1974 in a commercial strip on the edge of what is now Koreatown, was known for his personal motto: “Love plus love equals love.”
But today, as bulldozers are poised to destroy the on-demand wedding chapel to make room for a Metro Purple Line construction “staging area” to store heavy equipment, Franco's son, Daniel, is sure L.A. Metro's Board of Directors doesn't do math the way his late father did.
According to Daniel Franco, Metro's no-love policy has forced him out of the chapel his father started 40-plus years ago as a nondenominational, multiracial sanctuary. Anyone with $89 in their pocket could say their “I dos.” Before his death in 2010, Rev. Franco married almost 30,000 couples. Typically, he'd perform a dozen weddings daily, more on weekends.
Daniel Franco guesses 600,000 people attended weddings at the chapel.
But it's not about the numbers. His son says Rev. Franco was among the first to bring nonreligious civil weddings to Los Angeles and among the first to embrace the marriages of interracial couples when many L.A. churches still turned them away.
During the six-month period during which Proposition 8 was deemed unconstitutional in California, Albertson Wedding Chapel also was among the first, he says, to marry lesbians, bisexual, gay and transgender couples.
And in the 1970s, the chapel jumped in to perform “confidential marriages” without blood tests when the state Legislature made it easier to make common-law marriages official. Under an 1878 law, only clergy were allowed to secretly “sanctify” such relationships. Once that rule was loosened, tens of thousands of Californians got married.
“There was a reason my father put this chapel at Wilshire and La Brea. Koreatown is next door. We’ve married people from virtually every culture. My dad believed it’s better to be married than not.” —Daniel Franco
“This is not a church,” Daniel Franco says. “This chapel is for all races. We're there for all people. … There was a reason my father put this chapel at the corner of Wilshire and La Brea. Koreatown is next door. Nearby is Little Russia, Inglewood, Culver City and downtown. We've married people from virtually every culture. My dad believed it's better to be married than not married.”
But all that love in the air wasn't contagious, according to Franco, who says Metro's final offer to buy the chapel was lowball — he says it came in at about $40,000 — especially given the stylish improvements, such as the vaulted ceiling he and his father added.
Franco is a fashion designer who began working at his dad's chapel at age 10. He holds degrees from Otis College of Art & Design and FIDM, and worked weekends at the chapel doing marriage videos of couples to earn money to buy fabric. Although he appeared twice on Project Runway, making it to the notorious “team challenge” in season two, which he lost, he's put his fashion-design dreams on hold. “Weddings won't wait, and I had to be the sole supporter of my family,” he says.
The Metro offer was the result of a formula used in government eminent domain that's typically based on sales tax revenue records and fair-market value. But it isn't always what the business or property is worth, particularly to the owner. Owners and renters forced out by eminent domain often see settlement offers as leaving them holding the bag.
“Every three months for three years, Metro would threaten me that they were going to shut me down and take the place,” Franco says.
The Rev. Fernando Rossi Howard, who conducts most of the chapel's weddings these days, says Metro “would come in and it was like the Gestapo pushing their weight around, asking questions and threatening eviction.”
Metro's version is somewhat different. Metro spokesman Rick Jager says eminent domain “is part of an unfortunate process in building large public projects. When push comes to shove and someone is trying to hold up a project, then eminent domain is required to complete that project. The project can't be held in limbo. We apologize.”
In the end, Franco was forced to move the chapel to a more obscure spot at 834 S. La Brea Ave., two blocks south of Wilshire but not far from the old chapel. He said he has invested most of his money to re-create a sparkling white wedding room where couples can feel special. Now, he claims, Metro is stalling on making a fair settlement until the old chapel's nondescript white brick building is demolished.
In a June 26 letter, Carol Chiodo, Metro's director of Real Property Management & Development, warns Franco it's time to get out, writing that he previously received a 90-day notice to vacate and stating, “You are hereby required to quit and deliver up possession of said premises (5318 Wilshire Blvd.) on or before July 26, 2015.” Chiodo adds, “We will continue to offer relocation assistance.”
After the June 26 letter, Franco decided to move without reaching a settlement. He has a list of wants in the form of “goodwill,” a theoretical figure that describes the value of a business beyond the physical.
It's an emotional price tag, and figuring it out is a little tricky. Government doesn't do that so well, Franco's attorney Robert P. Silverstein says. What's missing from the formula, according to Silverstein, are the intangibles such as having the same location for decades or that this business had become a family's second home.
Those intangibles are priceless, Franco says, and although he wants Metro to pay a fair settlement, nothing will be the same. “My thing from the start was to stop them,” he says. “I didn't want a settlement. I wanted to stay there. I'm 43. I grew up in that chapel and it makes me think of all the lives that were affected. There were such important moments.”
Silverstein says his client can't take away the costly improvements to the chapel, “nor can he take the love of thousands who were married there. It's a sacred place.”
Silverstein says Franco is an innocent business owner who “was in the path of a train that literally ran over him.”
The law of eminent domain covers anyone with an interest in a property that government is seizing for its use, including renters. The law dates back to the Magna Carta in 1215, when nobles required King John to pay them for taking their land.
Metro was acting like a disgruntled king in this case, Silverstein says. “They made a small offer for equipment, signage and a vaulted ceiling.”
Metro's Jager says eminent domain is the avenue of last resort. “Eminent domain is not something we like to do but (the Purple Line extension) is a $4 billion project and delays cost money,” he says.
While the good fight may be about love, the tough fight is about location.
“As hard as Daniel tries,” Silverstein says, “he can't replace the loss of that visibility (on Wilshire).”