CL's new landlord? Church of Scientology in negotiations to buy Ybor Square, increase Tampa presence

Creative Loafing/May 1, 2010

Last week, as Creative Loafing was preparing to move from temporary quarters to permanent office space in Ybor Square (right), we heard the rumors: The historic former cigar factory, built in 1886 by Vicente Martinez Ybor, was up for sale - and the prospective buyer was The Church of Scientology.


We looked into it. No one could confirm. Calls weren't returned. Then I checked with the City of Tampa's zoning office, and there it was in black and white: In a letter from Zoning Administrator Catherine Coyle dated April 27, Church of Scientology of Tampa had received approval for "an office with a place of assembly" at 1911 N. 13th St. - the 87,337-square-foot complex between 8th & 9th Avenues and 13th and 14th Streets also known as Ybor Square.

According to a letter (see Info Box, right) and floorplans submitted to the zoning office by COS Tampa Corporate Secretary Ana Tirabassi, the Church feels it has "outgrown" its West Tampa facility on N. Habana Avenue (also a restored cigar factory) and wishes to move operations from that site into two of the three buildings in Ybor Square, the Factory and the Stemmery, leaving CL and Spaghetti Warehouse as tenants in the Warehouse Building "for the foreseeable future."

CL signed a 5-and-a-half year lease for its Ybor Square space on October 2009 with Zybor, Inc. (an affiliate of ZOM, the Orlando-based real estate developers) and occupied a warren of offices in the Factory before moving into an 8,595-square-foot loft space above Spaghetti Warehouse on April 24. CL Chief Financial Officer Angela La Fon did not know that the complex would soon be up for sale when she signed the lease.

The Church of Scientology has famously been the subject of in-depth investigations by the St. Petersburg Times, the latest featuring allegations of tyrannical mismanagement and defections from the organization's upper echelons. In an attempt to counter the Times' coverage, the Church created a newspaper-like supplement attacking the Times and paid for it to be inserted into Creative Loafing on January 6, 2010. The CL editorial department had nothing to do with the supplement's content, nor did we, or could we, vouch for its accuracy; it was an ad. Nevertheless, some readers mistook it to be a CL-produced package, and we were at pains to explain the distinction.

And now the Church was going to be our landlord? With offices just steps away from our own, including that of CL CEO Marty Petty, the former publisher of the Times?

Again, whoa.

The Church already runs a small Life Improvement Center in Ybor at 1619 8th Avenue. But according to the prospective floorplans, the Ybor Square facilities would be a much, much bigger deal - a significant increase in size from the Habana Ave. site, occupying one of the district's biggest, most historic buildings.

The floorplans show a chapel (the "place of assembly" referred to in the zoning letter); public classrooms with capacity for 306 students; an academy for 240; executive offices; men's and women's saunas; 11 "technical call-in desks"; and 36 auditing rooms (vs. 14 in Habana). Auditing is a key element of Scientology practice in which so-called "preclears" are taken through processes, sometimes involving the "E-Meter," that are intended to address "spiritual disabilities." Other facilities in the proposed space include a Purification Program Area, a Hubbard Guidance Center (after Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard) and an area labeled "Objectives Co-Audit Ambulatory."

The jargon alone is enough to give a non-Scientologist the willies. But it's not clear how the Church's expansion would affect its most immediate neighbors or the neighborhood as a whole. Off the record, some Ybor City residents expressed fears that this move means the Church intends to turn Ybor into Clearwater East. Others reacted with relative nonchalance. "If it does happen, I'd be pretty supportive," said one community leader. "As long as they're not beating the streets to recruit people too heavily."

It's not a done deal just yet. While zoning approval has been granted, COS may still have to apply for a change of use from the City of Tampa's Construction Services division if the complex has not previously been used for "a place of assembly." Then there's the matter of dealing with the tenants of the Factory and Stemmery buildings; one has a reputed 15-year lease, and there are years remaining on other tenants' shorter-term leases. Whatever the remaining roadblocks, the Church seems to be facing a deadline: In her request for a zoning determination, COS Tampa's Tirabassi asked for a quick response "since we are under contract to make a decision on the property by May 5th."

CL placed calls Thursday and Friday to Scientology headquarters in Clearwater and Los Angeles to inquire about the status of the purchase negotiations. The calls were not returned. A representative of Zybor, Inc. asked for and received emailed questions from CL late Friday afternoon; we have not yet had a reply. Cushman & Wakefield, the broker involved in the sale, did not return a call from CL. According to one source, Scientology agreed to pay ZOM's reported asking price of $8,500,000 for the complex, but that has not yet been confirmed.

One thing's clear: If the deal does come to fruition, Creative Loafing will enjoy, if that's the word, a unique vantage point: a next-door-neighbor's view of what goes on at the Tampa facilities of one of the most controversial religious organizations in the world.

We'll be auditing you, COS.

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