City Council has hands tied regarding the El Rey Theatre
For the past year, Steve Depa has been trying unsuccessfully to sell the 110-year-old El Rey Theatre. The local real estate broker has pitched the property to hundreds of business owners and investors, he says, but the most interested party to date would turn it into a restaurant. Nobody has considered preserving it as a theater.
He explained why during the Chico City Council’s discussion of the El Rey on Tuesday (Oct. 4).
“I’ve had theater groups come up from Los Angeles, and they said that it’s a movie theater, not a [performance venue],” Depa said. “There’s no wing space, there’s no back stage. … To use it as something other than for film, it doesn’t function that way.
“We haven’t kept this a secret that it’s for sale,” he continued. “Now we have an eleventh hour [effort to] save the theater, and I’d just ask the crowd: Who’s seen a movie there in the past five years?”
Most people in attendance raised their hands. Granted, nearly all of them were volunteers with the El Rey Theater Alliance, a group working to preserve the theater. They showed up in force on Tuesday with petitions asking the city to protect it—they’ve gathered 1,076 written and 550 electronic signatures—and picket signs reading “Save the El Rey.” Seventeen people spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, and most made glowing remarks about the theater’s cultural and historical significance.
One speaker, referencing the fairy murals on the interior, implored the council to “save the fairies.”
The panel can’t do much, it turns out. It could vote to list the El Rey on the city’s Historic Resources Inventory, but that wouldn’t mean the murals are safe, said Community Development Director Mark Wolfe. A proposal to demolish or make major alterations to a listed property would trigger an environmental review and a public hearing, he said, but there’s nothing stopping the property owner from painting over the murals.
The council could craft an emergency ordinance to protect the interior, but City Attorney Vince Ewing advised against that approach. Such laws are passed only in cases where there’s an urgent threat to public health, welfare and safety, he said. Protecting the interior of a private building would be a stretch.
“It’s my opinion that the city would be exposed [to litigation] because this doesn’t rise to the level of a public safety issue,” Ewing said.
Without much course for action, the council directed city staff to look deeper into what protections might be gained by designating the El Rey as a historic landmark. Councilwoman Ann Schwab, who requested the council’s discussion, encouraged the volunteer group’s effort to raise $1.4 million to purchase the El Rey and commended “the outpouring of love, passion and support.”
In other city news, the Chico Fire Department recently lost out on a $4.1 million grant, Interim Fire Chief Bill Hack told the CN&R by phone.
In 2014, the city secured the $5.3 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant, which created 15 new positions for the fire department. Chico’s application for a second grant was rejected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but Hack isn’t sure why.
“We have not received any letters that specify why it wasn’t accepted,” he said. “Over the phone, [FEMA] confirmed that they were not giving out any additional grants over this period. … It’s disappointing, but we knew this was coming eventually, either this year or the next.”
Without an unforeseen infusion of cash, he’d have to make layoffs and reduce daily staffing at Chico’s six fire stations from 17 to 12 firefighters. “You can’t staff six fire stations with 12 people,” he said. “That means the permanent closure of at least one fire station, if not two.”
Hack is set to present a report on the future of his department during the City Council meeting on Nov. 1.