Scientology's building heads upward

The city's permit allows the church to shift from underground work to above ground, where the $45-million building will rise seven stories and a tower, 15 stories.

St. Petersburg Times/March 29, 2000
By Thomas C. Tobin

Clearwater -- After months of negotiations with the Church of Scientology, city officials issued a permit Tuesday that allows the church to continue construction of its massive new downtown building.

The pair of towering white cranes that loom over the project, mostly idle since the fall, will come to life once more.

For 16 months, the building has taken shape below ground as workers shaped a foundation and a giant basement that will serve as a dining facility for Scientology's uniformed staff.

Now, the seven-story "Super Power" building will begin to grow skyward, gradually taking a permanent place along downtown Clearwater's low-slung skyline.

The crowning feature of the $45-million building will be a 15-story tower, visible from blocks away, topped by an eight-point Scientology cross made of bronze.

Construction is expected to be completed in two years.

The church began construction in November 1998 with a foundation permit. But city officials did not want to issue a standard building permit for the rest of the building until they were satisfied the church would provide for parking.

At 384,000 square feet, the building will be the largest Scientology has ever constructed. It also will be the largest building in downtown Clearwater and one of the largest in Pinellas County.

The church expects the building will lead to a doubling of its 1,000-member Clearwater staff and a sharp increase in the number of Scientologists who visit Clearwater, from the current 2,000 a week to as many as 5,000. The permit was released Tuesday after Scientology provided a bank letter guaranteeing the city up to $3.6-million, an amount that probably will never be required.

Under the city code, those who build in downtown may either construct the required number of parking spaces for their projects or pay the city a fee in lieu of parking. The fee is $4,500 per space.

Although the size of the Scientology building requires 809 spaces under the code, the church has decided to pay for 334 spaces rather than build them. Before the permit was issued Tuesday afternoon, the church gave the city a check for slightly more than $1.5-million.

Legally, the church could buy the remaining 475 spaces and develop no parking at all. However, it plans a parking garage along Court Street. Church officials said their need for parking is diminished by two factors. Many Scientologists using the building will arrive in the church's motor pool, which employs buses and vans. Also, the church counted more than 1,800 nearby public parking spaces available in the evenings when large events would be held.

The new building will feature a "grand lobby" with sculptures depicting several concepts of Scientology; a first-floor chapel; several theaters for training and introductory films; a museum honoring the Sea Organization, the uniformed "fraternal order" that staffs the church; and a museum honoring Scientology's late founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

Other features include a bookstore, a library, 15 course rooms where Scientologists study together, and about 300 rooms for one-on-one counseling.

The sixth floor will house an indoor running track for parishioners undergoing the Purification Rundown, a regimen of saunas, exercise and vitamins that Scientologists believe rids the body of toxins.

The building's stately Mediterranean Revival style will match that of the Fort Harrison Hotel, Scientology's signature property immediately west across S Fort Harrison Avenue.

All of the hotel's counseling rooms will be moved to the new building, a change that will render the old Fort Harrison completely taxable for the first time since Scientology bought it in 1975.

Also at that point, the church will open the hotel's restaurants to the public -- another first in Clearwater.

The eight-point cross planned for the top of the new building refers to the eight "dynamics" that Scientologists believe define each person's life. It has no Christian reference.

According to a Scientology publication from last year: "We surveyed the entire local area from all vantage points and determined the maximum height of the building so as to ensure every citizen and visitor to Clearwater could not possibly miss the view of our huge Scientology cross or the Fort Harrison beyond."

The new structure is most frequently called the "Super Power" project, which refers to the name of a set of yet-to-be-released Scientology "rundowns" or processes that are said to give Scientologists "an entirely new level of power and ability."

Church officials say that Scientologists from throughout the world will be clamoring to get Super Power counseling, hence the projected increase in visitors.

The building is the centerpiece of a church expansion downtown that will cost from $60-million to $90-million.

Bob Keller, Clearwater's assistant city manager for economic development, said the $1.5-million paid by the church must be used for downtown parking, but the city has not settled on where.

He said the building permit was delayed as city officials and the church negotiated the number of parking spaces and how the church would guarantee payment.

Legally, he said, the church had no obligation to discuss parking or provide it until the end of the project, when a certificate of occupancy is issued. But church officials were sensitive to the city's parking needs, including its desire to plan parking for a downtown redevelopment plan, he said. "The cooperation's been fabulous," Keller said. "They went above and beyond what we had any right to require from them."

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