Failed fire inspections cited in city of Fresno motion to get inside Tower Theatre

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- The city of Fresno cites failed fire inspections, including one just last week, in its effort to access the Tower Theatre for an appraisal and historic preservation purposes.

Theater owner Laurence Abbate told Action News the fire inspection last week was their best ever. They failed, but he says the problems were minor and he's fixed them all.

But he's still not letting a city appraiser inside without a court order.

From the outside, the Tower Theatre looks much the same as it did almost 30 years ago when it earned its place on the National Register of Historic Places.

But the city of Fresno couldn't get the owner's permission to get inside for an appraisal and analysis of the historical preservation, so they filed a legal motion.

"It is incumbent upon us as a city to protect all of our historic resources," said Councilmember Esmeralda Soria. "That's why we've been doing this."

Soria says recent construction -- apparently without permits -- at the Hardy's Theater in downtown is a reminder that the city needs to keep an eye on historic buildings.

But an attorney for the Tower Theatre's owners filed a response to the city saying there's no threat to the historical landmark.

Owner Laurence Abbate said there's no comparison to Hardy's and cited an award they won for preserving the theater. (The award he showed in a Facebook video appears to be from 1992, the same year the theater received its historical designation.)

The city says it also wants to figure out how much the property is worth with the possibility of taking it by eminent domain on the table.

A judge will make his decision in October.

"I think it's important for the city to be able to get in there to look at this property to see 1) do they want to seek eminent domain 2) do they want to preserve it in and of itself," said legal analyst Tony Capozzi.

Capozzi says eminent domain is a tall hill to climb for the city.

Councilmember Soria says it's not the only option for protecting the theater at the heart of the city's art and entertainment district.

"There's no decision made on that," Soria. "This is strictly to go into the building to make sure it's historically preserved and to get an appraisal to see what are the options for the city of Fresno to have that security."

The city argues the failed fire inspections in 2016, 2018, and last week are evidence they need to get inside.

The battle with the city is just one prong of the legal issues for the theater and Abbate.

He's also fighting Sequoia Brewing, which wants to exercise a right to buy at least their portion of the property before a sale to Adventure Church.

That case is in appellate court right now.
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