Church of Scientology goes for zoning change

Printers Row residents worry about parking, solicitation

Chicago Journal/January 29, 2009

Church of Scientology members, Printers Row residents and 2nd Ward Alderman Robert Fioretti tussled Tuesday evening over a church Scientologists want to establish at 650 S. Clark.

The group is seeking to change the building's zoning from DX-12, a downtown mixed-use district, to DR-10, a downtown residential classification.

The change would allow the church to develop their religious center in the empty building without obtaining a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals, as the current zoning requires. The group has been unable to secure the permit in the past.

"They can't really get a full hearing from them," said Tom Smith, a planner at Duncan Associates who is working for the Scientologists. A member of the zoning board, Brian Crowe, represented the group in the past, Smith said, and therefore must recuse himself from voting on the group's permit application.

Smith told the crowd that the zoning change would be appropriate and even beneficial to the local community. It would allow a nearly 100-year-old building to be refurbished, he said, draw visitors to the area and offer a new religious institution in an area marked by substantial residential growth over the last few years.

Tradition in Chicago dictates that the City Council, which must ultimately approve any zoning changes, defer to local aldermen on whether to accept or deny a new zoning classification. But Fioretti said he still doesn't know whether he'll support the Scientologist's application.

"There are still issues that have to be resolved," he said after Monday's gathering. 'If they're not resolved, there's not going to be a zoning change."

At issue is parking for the facility and whether or not members of the church plan to promote their belief system by handing out pamphlets and information along South Clark Street.

Kathleen Myles, a Printers Row resident who also works in San Francisco, said she frequently encounters Scientology church members pushing materials around Union Square in that city, and she doesn't want to see the same behavior in Chicago. "I cannot pass the Church of Scientology without being accosted," she said.

"Chicago is different than San Francisco. Chicago is a place where people want to feel secure on the sidewalk," said Rick Moxon, who attended the meeting at Grace Place with a number of other Scientologists. "It's just not going to happen here," he said of distributing materials.

Parking concerns, a frequent issue in this part of the South Loop, drove much of the discussion. "I don't have a problem with the Church of Scientology ... What I do have a problem with is parking issues with the property," said Nicholas Contesi, who owns the building at 700 S. Clark, immediately south of the Scientologist's proposed institution. Contesi argued the group needs more parking.

"Building more parking and building more parking garages will not solve the parking problem," Smith countered later in the meeting. "This is the perfect use for transit."

Church members said they've secured the right to lease 100 parking spaces along LaSalle Street, behind their proposed facility. Richard Boykin, a former chief of staff for 7th District Congressman Danny Davis who is now on the group's legal team, said the Scientologists will work to secure more parking if it's needed. Thirty-five staffers, 8 of whom will be full-time employees, will work at the center, said a member of the church who declined to give her name.

Fioretti said there is no timetable for consideration for the zoning change, but that it will-or won't-happen "sooner than later."

In the meantime, the negotiations will continue. Fioretti told the crowd, "We're going to write something into it" on solicitation. He told Chicago Journal after the meeting he planned to meet with Zoning Committee chair William Banks, alderman of the 36th Ward, to see if such an agreement could be folded into the zoning change application or if it had to be separate.

The Scientologists, which purchased the 650 S. Clark building after it was vacated by a number of community and labor organizations, must contend with skepticism about the group's activities generally.

"Do you want to come into a neighborhood that doesn't want you?" asked Printers Row dweller Susan Rice. "Nobody wants you here that I know. Is that what you want?"

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