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Tower Theater's future discussed
Old theaters were once breathtaking and classic pieces of Americana.
In Willows, the marquee of the Tower Theater lit up Sycamore Street throughout the 1950s and 1960s with titles like "The Blob," "Cat on Hot Tin Roof," "Doctor Zhivago" and "Psycho."
In 1949, people lined up around the block to buy tickets for "Sampson and Delilah," and in 1953 to see "From Here to Eternity."
Long before the age of Home Box Office and DVDs, kids got out of the house and gathered for popcorn, candy and weekend matinees of "Mary Poppins," "Dr. Doolittle" and "Jason and the Argonauts."
Today, movies at the Tower Theater are a distant memory.
What is left of the old movie house is a concrete shell and an asbestos-laden pile of rubble on the theater floor, according to a report from Indigo, Hammond and Playle Architects of Sacramento.
Lead paint is present inside the building and in the exterior paint, said John Hammond, who presented the grim report Tuesday to the City Council.
"The site is blighted and presents a stagnant space in the Willows commercial district," Hammond said.
Hammond was contracted by 3CORE and the city, using Community Development Block Grant funding to do a commercial renovation, reuse and revitalization strategy.
Citizens have long complained of the potential health hazard, particularly after the roof caved in a few years ago.
The theater has sat empty and deteriorating for decades.
"It is obviously beyond repair," Hammond said.
The theater was constructed in the late 1940s across from the Willows Post Office.
Throughout most of the 20th century, popular building materials included asbestos, which is now known to be a human carcinogen, and lead paint, which is linked to nervous system and kidney damage in children if ingested.
Both are typically present in all structures built before 1970.
"It is a legacy we see all over the place," Hammond said.
The report also noted the old theater was in need of bracing, and would not withstand an earthquake of any magnitude.
As city officials anticipated before receiving the report, the cost to do anything to the building will be costly and the owner, Chung Yia Chang of Vallejo has indicated that she does not have the means to make changes.
Chang inherited the property from her husband, who purchased the property sight unseen for $125,000 in 2001, officials said.
Chang, however, has indicated she is willing to give up title in order for the city to pursue state and federal environmental safety money that a private citizen cannot access, Hammond said.
He estimated the structural stabilization of the Tower Theater with its toxic materials left in place for later cleanup would run about $560,000.
He said abating the toxic materials and stabilizing the building for use, including a new roof, would cost about $850,000.
The third and most practical option, Hammond said, would be to demolish the building to allow future use of the lot, which would cost between $375,000 and $515,000.
City officials prefer demolishing the building so that the site can be put to better use later.
"Nobody wants to see that (theater) gone more than I do," said Councilwoman Terry Taylor-Vodden, who grew up in Willows when the Tower was a vibrant business in the downtown. "When I come out of that beautiful post office, I want to cry."
There has been some interest in seeing a small senior housing unit built on the site or used as future courthouse parking, but Mayor Jeff Cobb said the city will have to take the project one step at a time.
A park and permanent location for a farmers market or flea market will also be considered, he said.
The lot is worth about $40,000 in today's market, said City Manager Steve Holsinger said, but the city will make it clear to the owner that she cannot profit from the property if public money is used for the environmental cleanup.
"We will have to have an agreement for a clear title," Holsinger said.
Although citizens have been concerned about the health of people in the community as a result of the asbestos, an air-quality test was not performed in conjunction with the study.
"We really don't know," Hammond said.
It is generally accepted that asbestos, if undisturbed, poses less risk than when it is shuffled around, Holsinger said.
The greatest exposure likely occurred when the roof collapsed, and Councilman Larry Mello feels the property owner should still be held responsible.
Others, however, said they simply want the building gone.
"We have a blighted property in the downtown and we need to get it out of there," Holsinger said.
CONTACT Susan Meeker at 934-6800 or email@example.com.