The owners of the 100-year-old Rives mansion say city officials have turned on them after they declined to lease the house to a group who wanted to open a private tobacco lounge at the site.
Rives mansion owners Carmen and Oscar Rivera say Mayor Luis Marquez and former Mayor Kirk Cartozian in May and June approached them about renting the house to a group from Long Beach who wanted to open a cigar lounge in the 4,800 square-foot mansion.
The Riveras turned down the proposal because they felt the offer was too low and because it included eight months of free rent. They also feared a community backlash against a cigar lounge at the historic structure, saying many in the city were upset over the opening of hookah lounges at other locations.
Since the Riveras turned down the offer from Cartozian, who is a real estate broker, they claim that police and city officials have started a campaign of harassment. They were working with Cartozian on getting a tenant for the house before the cigar lounge proposal came up.
“Before we listed with this guy, we had parties, but no problems,” said Oscar Rivera. “Now we have problems all the time.”
Cartozian, who served on the City Council from 200o to 2008, said the allegation that the cigar deal somehow soured the city on the property was “completely off base.”
“Honestly, that (cigar lounge) was the best offer and best proposal that was brought from the business community,” Cartozian said. “That there’s some big conspiracy, or that a barrage of city pressure or code enforcement came thereafter, is ridiculous.”
The Riveras had run ins with the city for years before Cartozian marketed the property, and he got involved out of loyalty to the city, he said.
“Everybody was telling me about these problems beforehand,” he said.
“I was trying to bring as much as interest and prospective tenancy to their site as I could,” he said. “But, look, there are only a certain number of uses that are appropriate.”
Marquez last week declined to discuss the matter, saying he was busy and that he wanted a text message about the mansion. He did not return two subsequent text messages or a call to his cell phone.
City officials flatly denied the allegation that they were working against the Riveras.
Community Development Director Brian Saeki said the Riveras were in the process of getting a conditional use permit for a banquet hall at the site.
He said he misspoke at a recent Planning Commission when he said the Riveras had not tried to get such permit.
“They do have an application to the city to change that use to an assembly use,” he said. “That is at the city right now being processed the way we do things internally here. We expect that application to go before the Planning Commission in 30 to 45 days.”
The Riveras, who bought the property for $1.7 million nearly six years ago, want to use the 1-acre site as a banquet center.
But neighbors say a banquet center is not an appropriate use for the site, which is surrounded by a residential neighborhood.
In their eyes, the property has become a party house, complete with amplified music, parking problems, litter and drinking.
The issue came to a head last week at a Planning Commission hearing over an application by the Riveras to hold a wedding at the house on Saturday.
Two neighbors testified that the Riveras hosted dozens of parties since May, and two others wrote letters to the commission against granting the permit.
Jeffry Phillips, who lives just west of the Rives mansion, testified that the Riveras routinely hold late-night parties at the house.
“They have weddings, quinceaneras, birthday parties, you name it,” he said.
“To be frank, I just can’t understand why they don’t realize what a problem this is,” said Phillips. “I’m not a party pooper. I love a good party. But this use just doesn’t fit.”
Former city code enforcement officer Joe Eggert, who left the city in June, also spoke against the Riveras at the hearing, saying parties at the house keep residents awake. Eggert lives in and owns a nearby apartment building.
The Planning Commission approved the wedding with several restrictions.
The police came by anyway, Carmen Rivera said.
The Riveras claim they have rented out the Rives mansion to outside groups only three times since May. The rest of the gatherings, they say, were made up of family and friends.
The believe that the soured business deal with Cartozian has city officials breathing down their necks.
The pointed to a Planning Commission hearing Wednesday when Saeki said from the dais that he reported the Riveras to the city for holding what he considered to be an illegal garage sale.
The Riveras had a permit for the garage sale, but it was mistakenly given to them since the house is a commercial property, they said.
“When it’s convenient for them, this is a house,” Carmen Rivera said. “When it’s not, they call it a commercial building.”
At that same hearing, Planning Commissioners seemed annoyed at the city’s staff for bringing up problems with the property but failing to provide any documentation, such as police reports.
All parties agree police have been called to the property several times this year. The Riveras say the police come almost every time the house hosts any function. City officials are compiling data about how many times officers have been to the site and for what reasons, Saeki said.
They city also recently temporarily shut down a realty office at the front of the property for having damaged steps. The office has since been allowed to open after the steps were repaired.
At the heart of the dispute seems to be the mansion’s designation as a commercial property.
The Riveras originally bought the site to use as a real estate center, but the housing crash killed that idea, Carmen Rivera said. Before that, the house served as a residence.
Then in late 2010 the mansion was included in the Paramount Boulevard Professional District in the Downtown Downey specific plan.
The plan – which serves as a land-use law for the area – calls for the Rives Mansion to be used as a commercial property. The document seems to take for granted that the mansion would be an event center.
“The Rives Mansion, a historic resource, is also located in this District, and is used for special events,” the plan states.
Event centers and banquet halls are allowed with a conditional use permit, according to the plan.
The Riveras say a banquet center is the most logical plan for the site, which has big several large halls, a huge yard and a few outbuildings.
Eventually, the Riveras would like to open the house up in the morning for school tours, Carmen Rivera said.
“That’s one of the reasons we didn’t want the tobacco lounge,” she said. “This is part of Downey’s history, but none of the children who live here would ever get to come inside and see it.”
A cigar lounge is not permitted under the plan and would require a zoning change, according to Saeki. But the proposal was declined by the Riveras before it ever came before the city.
The structure is considered the city’s most historic building. It was built by the entrepreneur James C. Rives, who came to Los Angeles as a child with his family. He eventually founded a newspaper in Downey and became the county’ district attorney before building the mansion in 1911.
The Riveras want to continue to improve the mansion, which they say was in severe disrepair when they bought it. And they’re willing to accept reasonable restrictions, such as a closing time earlier than the bars and restaurants across Paramount.
“Right now, we’re stuck,” Carmen Rivera said. “We’re afraid to try anything because we don’t know what the city’s going to do next.”
Cartozian insists that he did his best for the Riveras. The house is tough to market, he said.
“My one job is to bring the highest and best uses for them,” he said. “I couldn’t articulate to them that this was probably the best offer they were going to receive. In that sense, I guess I failed.”