The Church of Scientology cleared a hurdle in their effort to develop a religious center in Printers Row when the Committee on Zoning approved a new zoning designation for a church-owned building in the neighborhood on Tuesday.
Second Ward Alderman Robert Fioretti voiced his support for the decision at the committee meeting in city council chambers.
"There are First Amendment and freedom of religion issues that have been raised," he said, "but I don't think the propriety of those issues should be addressed in opposition of the zoning change itself."
"This zoning change will be great for the community," Fioretti said.
The change will allow the group to revamp the vacant Artcraft Building at 650 S. Clark into a church without obtaining a special permit, which the Zoning Board of Appeals denied last year.
The full city council still needs to approve the new zoning.
David Newberger, a member of the church and a 2nd Ward resident, said the new facility would be a community asset.
"Not unlike the zoning committee, we too are charged with the mission of protecting and enhancing our community," he said, "helping to eradicate the social ills that plague our beloved city."
But Enrique Perez, a Printers Row resident who publishes an influential electronic newsletter, testified against the zoning change Tuesday, saying neighborhood concerns "were not taken to taken to heart" by Fioretti despite what he described as the alderman's "good faith" effort to hear them out.
Perez testified he and other Printers Row condominium association presidents met with church officials and the alderman in November to discuss concerns about the project.
In that meeting, said Perez, "things were stated that were going to be addressed and memorialized via a letter of understanding, which we have not yet received."
Perez said Fioretti had agreed to issue him a letter specifically outlining his reasons for supporting the project.
The night before the zoning committee meeting, Perez said he was contacted by one of the church's attorneys, who assured him that the letter from Fioretti was forthcoming.
"Hence," he said, "I could report back to my group, saying that the deal was struck and that all our concerns had been answered." The letter never came.
"I felt like I was misrepresented," he said.
At a January community meeting about the new zoning, representatives of the church stated that there would 35 staffers, eight of whom would be full-time employees working in the Printers Row church.
The project narrative for a special-use permit the Church of Scientology applied in May 2007, however, said the church "has a paid staff of approximately 180 persons, most of whom are full-time employees, and all of whom will have access to" 650 S. Clark.
"This impacts our neighborhood," Perez said. "If there are going to be 100 more employees working in this church, I want to know."
Perez also expressed unease over the possibility of the church housing a drug rehab center.
His comments didn't get much traction with 36th Ward Alderman William Banks, who chairs the zoning committee.
"What took place in that meeting has no bearing on what we do in this meeting," Banks said.
"You're in the right church, but the wrong pew, so to speak."
The committee heard testimony from other supporters and opponent to the zoning change, and Banks kept those against the change on a short leash, telling them his committee only considered the propriety of zoning, not broader issues they had with Church of Scientology practice.
Fioretti said that there is no timeline for construction, and that the church has yet to present city council with designs for the project.
South Loop Neighbors, a community organization that has frequently weighed in on zoning and planning matters in Printers Row over the years, did not take a formal position on the issue, said Dennis McClendon, president of the group.
Speaking for himself, McClendon thought animus toward the Church of Scientology generally was driving opposition to the zoning change.
"If the Fifth Methodist Church wanted to hold services there, it's hard to imagine there'd be any discussion of the subject," he said.
Micah Maidenberg contributed reporting.