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La Plaza United Methodist Church protests city's rent hike [Updated]

La Plaza United Methodist Church on Olvera Street in Downtown Los Angeles. Church supporters are protesting increases in rent and fees placed on them by the city.
La Plaza United Methodist Church on Olvera Street in Downtown Los Angeles. Church supporters are protesting increases in rent and fees placed on them by the city.
Katherine Davis/ KPCC

Filling the pews — not of their church — but of City Council chambers, about 70 church supporters in yellow T-shirts reading “Save La Plaza United Methodist Church!” marched to City Hall on Friday morning. The group was out to protest the city's increase in their rent and fees.

The United Methodist Church has been a presence on Olvera Street for over 100 years. The present building has been there since 1927. The church has been paying the city rent of $1 per year since 1956 when Olvera Street became property of the state under the management of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority.

At that time, according to officials, the city bought the property for $500,000 and inked a $1 per year lease agreement with the church for the next 50 years. That lease expired in 2006, and there hasn't been another formal agreement since.

According to the church, the city now wants to charge them based on a complicated fee structure rather than a monthly or yearly rent agreement. The fees start at $232 per month for regular Sunday services. Any additional services or events that they wish to hold — such as counseling services, weddings or baptisms — would be subject to additional fees.

"What would you have us charge for those services?" church member Trey Baskett asked during the City Council meeting. "We don't have an a la carte menu."

In a letter to Council member Jose Huizar’s office, church representatives said, “The effect of the city proposal is a disincentive for the church to undertake religious activities, because they have to ‘count the dollars’ each time they use the building.”

The church now hopes for a compromise. They are proposing to pay the city a flat rate of $580 per month for unlimited use of the building.

La Plaza Initiative director Leonora Barron said the church’s recent troubles with the city's lease agreement began in November 2010 after members of the church were asked to vacate the premises as their building underwent renovations. The building’s locks were changed and church members had to petition the city to regain their access to the building. On May 6, they reached a temporary lease agreement with the city.

Robert Andrade, general manager for El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority, said those renovations cost the city over $800,000 in repairs, most of which were dire safety concerns, including replacement of lead paint.

When the church was closed for repairs the city was advised by their committee that the $1 per year lease arrangement was actually somewhat illegal because of church vs. state laws. This, Andrade said, is why they set up the fee structure which they determined to be "reasonable fees" for church services.

He added that "we favor [the United Methodist Church] being there. They have a historical presence there. But at the same time we have to protect the taxpayers. It's a delicate balance."

Church supporters know they can't be shown favoritism due to to requirements about the separation of church and state, though the hope they can be shown a little leniency as a nonprofit organization that provides valuable services.

“We do not plan to charge the city fees for the countless hours of social services we provide,” the Rev. David K. Farley told the City Council jokingly. “The United Methodist Church wants to partner with the city and sign and agreement that encourages not discourages those services.”

Farley was one of 10 people who rose to speak on the church's behalf during Friday's council meeting. Other speakers included not only members of the church, but members of other religious organizations from around the city, as well as noted California historian and USC professor, William Deverell, and the Rev. James Lawson, a civil rights activist best known for his work with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lawson encouraged the council members to consider the significance of the church beyond its market value.

"I simply say there are other values in this city other than making some developers richer," he said. Church supporters speculated that their rent and fee increase may be a response to pressures from developers interested in property around Olvera Street, a charge the city vehemently denies.

Council member Huizar thanked the church supporters for their comments and told them to “rest assured” that the issue would be come before council within the next few weeks.