When the City of Los Angeles began lease negotiations with a historic church on Olvera Street, parishioners never imagined it would come to this. Even in an era when government officials are increasingly under pressure to pinch every penny until it squeaks, the city seems determined to squeeze church members out of the pews and onto the streets.

Exhibit A: The city's latest draft of the leasing contract forbids church members from collecting money. That appears to mean no passing of collection plates during Sunday worship. No passing the hat during Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and, probably, no future for the La Plaza United Methodist Church, which first opened its massive wood doors in 1926.

“Their fear is that we're going to make money and stick around,” says Leonora Barron of La Plaza church, “and they don't want us to stick around.”

Some involved in the negotiations believe that Robert Andrade, the obscure city employee who is general manager of the city-controlled El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority, wants to redevelop Olvera Street, with its old-fashioned vendor stalls filled with ponchos, postcards and other trinkets, into a CityWalk/Grove/Americana hybrid, with chain stores and deep pockets to cover higher rents collected by the city.

Andrade oversees the city-owned 44-acre Olvera Street tourist area, which includes the Methodist Church, Pico House, six museums, restaurants and dozens of tiny stalls offering souvenirs. The El Pueblo Board of Commissioners — all political appointees of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — and Andrade have the power to dictate what happens within the borders of the expansive, pedestrian-friendly site across from Union Station downtown.

Andrade says he can't understand what all the fuss is about. He claims that he, Mayor Villaraigosa and District 14 Councilman Jose Huizar want the congregation to stay and pray in the church and also run a church museum filled with church and Olvera Street memorabilia.

Andrade says the city attorney has come up with a use agreement that charges the church a nominal fee to use the city's church for worship or religious ceremonies. He said the city has to charge the church something because “there needs to be a separation of church and state.”

Andrade doesn't get why parishioners think he's outlawed the collection plate, which he flatly denies. But, in fact, the use agreement the city attorney offered church representatives specifically nixes any monetary collections.

Naturally, church members have interpreted that to mean collection plates are verboten. Though parishioners paint him as a cross between Snidely Whiplash and the Invisible Man, in a rare interview, Andrade sounds judicious: “If they want a donation box, that's up to them. There is going to have to be some fundraising.”

Mistrust between the church people and the bureaucrats is deepening during lengthy negotiations over the future of the church and its land.

“Robert Andrade has grandiose plans for our church,” insists Barron, a negotiator representing the church. “It's like Andrade is saying, 'We'll teach you!' and 'You have to do what we say because we're the city!' Andrade and the city are trying to wear us down so we'll sign.”

But what are the city's intentions at Olvera Street? When presented with a California Public Records Act request from L.A. Weekly, asking for emails and documents about the church negotiations as well as Andrade's job description and pay, Mike Dundas of the City Attorney's Office improperly withheld much of it. Among other things, Dundas erroneously claimed a court ruling lets City Hall refuse to release its communications with the church, and Dundas wrongly blacked out cellphone numbers and email addresses.

Dundas cited a California court ruling that “while a public agency is negotiating an agreement with a third party, the public interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighs the public interest.”

“Wrong,” says Terry Francke, an expert on public records law and chief counsel for Californians Aware. “The case law [Dundas] referred to applies to a city's negotiations” when seeking proposals from “several competing contractors.” Any documents passing between the city and church are public, Francke says, and Dundas was also plainly “wrong” in redacting phone and email information.

City leaders have in the past said they want the ornate church — across a courtyard from the Historic Monument's large, open-air, pedestrian-friendly entertainment plaza — to turn a profit for the city.

The latest offer from the city goes like this: If the church agrees to pay rent of $240 a month, the city will let parishioners use the church for four hours on Sunday.

City officials also demand the church stay open to the public during religious services, weddings, funerals and baptisms, so tourists can observe the rituals. And the city wants any church member who holds a wedding, funeral or other religious service to pay market-rate rental fees to the city — something the church has never done, La Plaza Methodist attorney Byron Hayes says.

“We can't operate a church under these conditions,” Hayes says. “This deal inhibits our ability to raise funds for this enterprise.”

As for charging members market rent, “We don't charge church members to hold a wedding or funeral or an AA meeting,” Hayes says. “Offering church space to our parishioners at no cost is part of what we do.”

Andrade says the city is required to charge rent for religious events, “so it couldn't be construed that the city was supporting a religious organization.”

Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the L.A. Conservancy, which is not involved in the La Plaza battle, says, “Generations of people have connections with this church, and that's important to the community. If it were 'repurposed,' that would be unfortunate.”

Barbara Campagna, chief architect of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., says churches like La Plaza are disappearing nationwide.

She points to the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in Manhattan's Chelsea district, designed by Richard Upjohn, one of the 19th century's premier architects. In the 1970s, the church was reinvented as Limelight nightclub. Now it's been reworked with high-end boutiques.

“There's even a lingerie store in the old church,” Campagna says. “It's really sad and really weird. I hope the City of Los Angeles wholeheartedly decides to respect the original integrity of the design (of La Plaza United Methodist Church). The best thing for any building is to maintain its original use, particularly a church.”

Andrade says the church will always remain a church.

“No nightclub. No mall,” he pledges.

The state forcibly took ownership of the church, the land beneath it and 44 surrounding acres in 1956 through eminent domain, then turned all properties over to the city. The city then leased the church to the congregation for $1 a year for 50 years — ending in 2006.

Since then, the church has fought for a renewed lease in the face of stiff opposition from Andrade and the nine-member El Pueblo Board of Commissioners, which wants to maintain greater control.

The city's proposal insists that if the congregation wants to use the church for an event of any kind, it must get permission from Andrade and El Pueblo's “special events” office.

“Does that mean we have to ask Mr. Andrade's permission to hold a staff meeting?” Hayes wonders. “We don't know.”

Recently, City Councilman Huizar had to step in, ordering Andrade to unlock the church after Andrade's employees locked it and parishioners faced a shutout on a Sunday morning. But according to Barron, an aide to Mayor Villaraigosa told her the mayor didn't want to touch this hot potato that's getting hotter.

The latest advice to the church congregation from Huizar? “Don't sign anything you can't live with.”

Reach the writer at davidfutch@roadrunner.com.

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