Asking people to believe in a vision they can’t immediately see for themselves is a practice that religion and rock & roll will always have in common. It’s an idea that’s as concrete as the exposed slabs, iron pipes and lumber sitting inside what was once the storied Long Beach venue the Vault 350. Sitting at a table discussing their plans for the next year of resurrecting the building, the voices of previous owner Michelle Molina and new proprietors Pastor Wayne Chaney and his wife, Myesha, echo between the wood beams of the stripped ceiling.
“The critical part of the story is about how this building was a bank; it was built as a bank, and it was a bank for a long time,” Molina says. In a former life, 350 Pine Avenue was the SoCal headquarters for the Bank of Italy before becoming a Bank of America. After that, Mitchell Stewart bought it and turned it into the Vault 350; he passed away in 2008.
“If change didn’t happen, we would’ve never had live music here,” Molina says. “So people have to wrap their heads around the idea of change—that’s the part that some people have a hard time with.”
Over the years there’s no shortage of nostalgia for the former concert hall which has now been shuttered for just over a decade. That’s a long enough time for many to forget (or even be too young to remember) the number of violent incidents, police calls and ill will from local residents that often felt plagued by its rowdier events.
“The music venue in this neighborhood which is a large percentage of residential, was a tough go,” says Molina, who has been living in the area since 2008. “There were a lot of neighborhood problems and a lot of anger surrounding this place being a venue when I took it over from the bank. People reached out to me and said “Please don’t!”’ It was a challenge to run for this community as a live music venue and bar. So if it was going to be a music venue once again, Molina thought it would have to be done differently.
Although it was only open as a functioning music venue from 2004 to 2008, most people could not imagine a stage that once hosted legends such as the B-52’s, Eek-A-Mouse, Pennywise, Kanye West and Snoop Dogg becoming a church. Everything about this area intuitively runs the opposite way of religion. The venue is next door to the beloved restaurant/drag bar Hamburger Mary’s, and the corner of Pine and Third Street is a hot bed of gentrification within earshot of the annual Long Beach Pride LGBTQ event. It’s a developing metropolis in which retail stores and modern high-rise apartment buildings pop up seemingly overnight.
For a church and multi-use venue to operate successfully, it would take a progressive and daring pastor to match the surroundings—not a stuffy, conservative ideologue. The most recent concert Chaney attended was On the Run II, featuring Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
“Shoot, half of our congregants or a good portion of them are in the industry, been on national programs, contestants on The Voice, been on world tours—a couple of our praise-team members are on tour right now with Justin Timberlake,” Chaney says. He’s sporting a green bomber jacket, fresh sneakers and an easy, laid-back smile. “So there’s not this dichotomy that there was in years past. In fact, we look forward to highlighting them as well as the bigger acts that come to town.”
As a black property owner, his purchase of the space—which was designed by black architect Paul Revere Williams—makes him not only a rarity downtown, but also an example for other entrepreneurs of color.
Chaney’s profile in the community (and as a cast member on the former Oxygen TV reality show Preachers of L.A.) continues to bring attention to Antioch Church. For years, the Chaneys invested more money into their church than they paid for it, even opening an upscale eatery called Cafe M across the street (which has since closed). Chaney says the lack of visibility of their location pushed him to put the church’s former location on the market.
“While we brought great value to our area and continue to do that wherever we are, we were tucked away a little bit,” Chaney says. “So we liked the idea of being in a city center, where life’s happening, where our folks can break out and have lunch together and continue to keep the party going after they leave here.” Considering the thousands that attend services at Antioch, the infusion of people frequenting shops and restaurants on weekends would be a shot in the arm to any surrounding businesses in the area.
As luck would have it, after four years of listing their previous building, the Chaneys recently got three offers and chose to sell it to a Coptic Christian church. Antioch currently hosts services in Long Beach Poly High School’s newly remodeled auditorium, but Chaney heard about the Vault’s availability and arranged a meeting with Molina, who by that time had exhausted every other opportunity to sell the building within the live-music world. She bought it with her then-husband, John Molina, for $3.5 million in 2015. The building’s previous owners, Luis Armen Kaloyan and Rudy Medina, promised big things for the space in 2010, but the struggling partnership fizzled and eventually ran out of money.
“They literally locked up and left their last meeting in this building with their Coke cans still on the table,” Molina says. “It was that fast.”
They had spent a lot of money tearing out the ceiling, making it impossible to open as a music venue in its current condition. Molina estimates it will cost around $6 million to make the space usable.
For the last several years, Molina says, she has courted several offers for the place, two of which were proposed music venues—one for country music, the other for world music. Both deals got all the way to the bargaining table with lawyers present, but both times, they failed to reach a suitable agreement. Aside from courting Goldenvoice and Live Nation (who also passed on the venue), she offered it to local club owners.
“I will tell you we asked every local music venue,” Molina says. “They’ve all had discussions with me about what it would take to run the operation, and although it would be a huge jump for everybody, even though they’re all great bookers and run great bars, it was a big gap.”
In addition to the concert business opting to squeeze every ounce of life out of the festival model, the idea of being a full-time concert venue positioned in the middle of the stiff venue competition between OC and LA also contributed to the building be a harder sell than it was a decade ago–there’s no question that times have changed.
Refusing to sell it to a grocery store or a gym that could potentially put other local establishments out of business, Molina opted to wait for the right opportunity to come along, drawing curiosity and plenty of ire from the community, who wanted to see something done with the once-prominent venue. The one thing she knew prior to meeting the Chaneys was that she’d saved it from being plowed into the ground.
“If it stayed with the bank, the bank could’ve done whatever they wanted with it,” she says. “At least I gave it an opportunity to be a place of community and belonging, and I kept that totally local so Long Beach people will own this; Long Beach people will be a part of this. In the end, that’s what local development is.”
Chaney admits he’s also dealt with a lot of skepticism about his plans for the venue, though he embraces the challenge. “It’s always been our dream to run a facility that was also a true venue,” Chaney says. “For us, it didn’t make sense to put millions of dollars into a facility in an urban center that you only use two or three times a week.” He says they are in the process of hiring a full-time event promoter and talent-buying company that will be open to touring artists, as well as weddings and various local events. Chaney says that it’s also going to take time for some members of his congregation to adjust to the change of this hybrid church venue.
“As it related to value systems, that’s a conversation we haven’t fully processed through, but our rhythm and our cadence engages the culture,” he says. “We’re a contemporary church with roots. As it relates to the venue side of it, the venue will be a lot more progressive.”
Myesha, who is an artist and a singer, knows the value of having a venue the creative community can be proud of.
“We know how to respect the heritage and the legacy and how to shepherd people through process and change because we’ve had to deal with it before. . . . We’ve been doing this and practicing that our whole life, doing what we’re going to do here,” Myesha says. “We’re not here to break anyone’s heart.”