After a nearly two-year battle, it appears that community activists have won their David-and-Goliath fight against a large development company’s effort to demolish a historic building and put up a big-box structure.

Senator Richard Polanco said last week that the state has come up with $3 million to help the Los Angeles Community College District create a satellite campus at the Van de Kamp‘s bakery site.

”We’re delighted that it happened,“ said Netty Carr, who started the Coalition To Save Van de Kamp‘s Bakery to spare the landmark Dutch Renaissance Revival building.

However, no one is doing a victory dance yet. The same developers who wanted to demolish the 1930s-era building and build a Lowe’s Home Improvement Store are now responsible for its preservation. Larry and Ralph Cimmarusti‘s Lucia Properties has signed papers to purchase the $6 million site and will be in charge of developing the campus project.

The Cimmarustis have circulated a site plan that shows the historic facade and a two-story classroom building behind it. Another two-story building would be located across from a green, open space, and a parking structure would be land-level and surround the buildings. The idea is for Los Angeles City College (LACC) to inhabit both buildings. Ralph Cimmarusti, when contacted at his office on Monday, would not comment about the project.

Carr said she will remain vigilant. ”Our role now is to be a watchdog group in terms of preservation,“ said Carr. ”It’s great they‘ve got their anchor tenant, but none of us, including the senator, have seen anything in writing or seen any development plans.“

The drive to save Van de Kamp’s, one of the last remaining landmarks in northeast Los Angeles, started at Netty‘s Restaurant, the Silver Lake eatery Carr has managed since 1987.

In 1999, when she first caught wind of the developers’ plans to demolish the bakery, she brainstormed with customers and fellow concerned residents Miki Jackson and Andrew Garsten. They formed the Coalition To Save Van de Kamp‘s Bakery, an umbrella organization that grew to include more than 20 neighborhood groups and that enjoyed the support of local politicians such as Polanco, Antonio Villaraigosa and Scott Wildman.

The group was dealt a surprising victory last August when the city Planning Commission unanimously opposed the project, dismissing the recommendations of its own planning officer. Commissioners did not buy the developers’ claims that they had seriously explored an adaptive reuse of the building, or had looked into preserving the historic facade.

Polanco, who is running for the 1st District council seat soon to be vacated by Mike Hernandez, had requested the school funds last year. The money was approved in the governor‘s budget, but with conditions. First, it had to be proved that there was a need for a satellite campus in the area. The results of a needs-assessment study found that, of the 5,000 high school students graduating from nearby Franklin and Eagle Rock high schools, only 101 attended LACC in the fall of 1999.

”The area is isolated from easy access to city college,“ said LACC president Mary Spangler. ”Many of these residents rely on public transit, and even if you own your own car, it’s difficult,“ Spangler said, noting the comparatively simple freeway access to Glendale Community College. ”The difference is, this is our service area. We have the responsibility to provide access, and one way is to come to them.“

The project still does not have official LACC Board of Trustees approval, however. Spangler has been keeping the board apprised of developments, but said that the project could not be taken under serious consideration until the $3 million was released.

Spangler presented the board with a preliminary set of terms and conditions of the proposed 30-year lease this week. She hopes the matter can be put on the agenda of the board‘s next public meeting, on March 7. Spangler said one of the board’s primary concerns is that the campus not be a financial drain on city-college coffers. The other is that the former industrial site ”not be another Belmont,“ referring to the toxic-laden school site in downtown Los Angeles. The Cimmarustis have agreed to assume liability for cleanup of the site, and the property must be determined to be environmentally safe before any school may be built.

Coalition founding member Garsten says that a wish list drawn up last year for preserving the building still applies. ”We would like to see them hire a firm experienced in adaptive reuse to explore what is more economically viable for the site given the needs of the tenants. Obviously, preservation of the entire building is our first goal, but, if after an assessment is done, that shows there‘s no way the building can be adapted within the budget, then end of story,“ said Garsten.

The coalition also wants the Cimmarustis to use a design firm chosen from a list of candidates experienced in historic preservation to be provided by the L.A. Conservancy; purchase a completion bond; issue a statement of materials used so quality may be known and monitored; consider as possible tenants coalition supporters Atwater Park Center and the French American School; and jointly lobby, with the coalition, for rights to develop a Metro Rail train depot at the south end of the property, which the train now runs past.

Some people are worried because the developers who fought so hard for demolition are now responsible for the restoration project. But coalition co-founder Jackson is confident: ”As long as it’s a good, well-built project that preserves the site and provides activities that are a benefit to this community, I don‘t care who does it.“

LA Weekly