Scientology church seeks more units for hotel

St. Petersburg Times/December 17, 2006
By Robert Farley

Clearwater -- After years of delay, there are visible signs that the Church of Scientology's ambitious plans to expand its downtown campus are again moving forward.

Several months ago, cranes began piecing together a four-story, 275-space parking garage at East Avenue and Franklin Street. It is expected to be finished by April.

On Tuesday, the Church of Scientology will go before the city's Community Development Board to request a transfer of development rights from the site of its power plant on Court Street to the Oak Cove Building, a 13-story waterfront high-rise that the church intends to develop as a 251-room hotel for visiting Scientologists.

Although Oak Cove was once a 309-bed assisted living facility, it has been vacant since 1999 and the current downtown redevelopment plan would limit the number of hotel units in the building to 170.

The church's plan is to transfer 81 units of potential development from its power plant property, meaning that site could never again be developed residentially. The trade-off would allow the 251 rooms at Oak Cove the church wants. Plans for Oak Cove also include a restaurant and half of a floor to be used as an exercise room.

Contractors have nearly finished clearing out the Oak Cove Building, said Church of Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw, and they are now working on infrastructure like electricity.

The building, including an exterior face-lift, is expected to be completed in May, he said.

The Oak Cove building, built in 1975, was purchased by the Church of Scientology in 2001. It was originally slated to be turned into housing for 600 church staffers anticipated to be working in the massive Super Power Building, which is still under construction. Oak Cove also lies just across Osceola Avenue from the church's Fort Harrison Hotel. Staff housing will instead be expanded to Sherwood Gardens, a 107-unit apartment complex on Keene Road, which is now under renovation.

The church also plans major renovations to turn the Fort Harrison Hotel into a five-star hotel with 220 rooms for visiting Scientologists, three public restaurants and a spa.

And, of course, the church promises to resume construction on its massive Super Power Building, which has sat idle, an empty shell, for three years.

The plan is to renovate Oak Cove, then move church functions that currently occur in the Fort Harrison into it. Then renovations to the Fort Harrison and Super Power Building would then commence, with completion now slated for mid-2008. At that point, religious services would move into the Super Power Building and the Fort Harrison and Oak Cove buildings would be used primarily as hotels.

Transferring development rights is a common tool used by developers that allows them to build more units on desirable property, while limiting development on less desirable sites.

The city's planning department will recommend the transfer be approved.

"It's not real unusual," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. "I don't think it's a big deal. I can't imagine it won't pass."

Shaw said church staff has finally approved a design for the interior of the Super Power building. Changes in design plans have been the chief cause of delays, Shaw said. Once completed, the designs will be submitted to the city for review.

"That's the big hurdle, then we're off," Shaw said

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