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Freemasonry Watch

Progressive City denies state request to study Masonic Temple

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Contra Costa Times - SF Bay Area, California

City denies state request to study Masonic Temple

Fri, Feb. 10, 2006

By Ryan Huff

Concord officials plan to allow demolition of a historic downtown building, even though a state agency says doing so without an environmental impact report would violate California law.

DeNova Homes wants to tear down the 79-year-old Temple of Mt. Diablo Masonic Lodge to make way for 220 condos on the corner of Galindo Street and Concord Boulevard.

But the local historical society wants the building preserved. And the state Office of Historic Preservation recently said the city should consider alternatives, such as incorporating the building into the condo project or moving it.

City officials say an impact report is not needed because razing the Masonic Temple would not adversely affect the environment.

Yet making such a decision without a full environmental report could open up the city to lawsuits because the state historic preservation office says the analysis is required under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Assistant City Attorney Mark Boehme said the city is on good legal ground, but declined to say what factors went into the city's decision to skip an environmental impact report.

"I can't discuss legal advice given to city officials," he said. "I have not heard anybody threatening litigation on this project."

The historic preservation office is an advisory agency that offers interpretation of state laws, but it cannot force the city to keep the building intact.

Still, Paul Larson and the Concord Historical Society want the building preserved. Larson, 75, remembers going to big band dances at the Spanish colonial revival-style temple in the late 1940s.

In those days, cattle ranches and orchards surrounded the lodge, which represented one of the area's most popular venues for weddings and other social events.

"It's the last lodge standing in Concord," Larson said. "The Elks Club and Odd Fellows Hall have been torn down and can never be revived. The question for the City Council is: Do we want to save anything from the historic era or just put in new buildings?"

The Esplanade condos project could come before the City Council for the first time in May. Developing high-density housing downtown near the BART station remains a top city goal, according to Concord's draft general plan.

The Masonic Temple sits on a 3.25-acre parcel across from a high-rise office building, the Legacy Apartments and the construction site for a 314-unit condo project by Signature Properties.

"We want to see a downtown area very lively during the evenings and not vacant," said Mayor Susan Bonilla. "When you have people living downtown, you achieve that."

DeNova President Dave Sanson did not return repeated phone messages seeking comment this week.

However, he said in a previous interview with the Times that his company couldn't fit 220 condos and underground parking on the site if the Masonic Temple stays.

"If the city decides to keep the building, we would not move forward on the project as proposed," Sanson said.

The developer has offered to reuse the temple's stained glass window and iron gates in its new buildings, but the state historic preservation office said that doesn't go far enough to preserve the historic structure.

Masons built the temple in 1927 on a $31,500 budget. For most of its early years, the temple was the largest building in Concord that people could rent for social functions, said Larson, a former president of the Concord Historical Society.

"This was before televisions or other distractions for people," he said. "People belonged to lodges for their nighttime entertainment."

The city's redevelopment agency bought the Masonic Temple in 1999 and floated several concepts -- such as building a hotel and turning the temple into a bar and restaurant. That plan didn't go far because the market for a hotel never materialized.

Today the nonprofit Gallery Concord leases the city building to display its watercolor paintings and sculptures.

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