As the Church of Scientology touts a plan to convert its prominent Yonge St. location into a flagship facility, the city says its owes over $100,000 in property taxes and penalties.
Critics of the controversial organization say similar renovation projects have languished in other cities.
The Church of Scientology of Toronto, which owns 696 Yonge St., owes more than $61,000 in property taxes and penalties for 2014, out of a total of just under $112,000. The organization made only partial payments of its 2014 property taxes, according to Supervisor of Collections Stephen Franceschini.
It also owes $57,348.15 in taxes and penalties on the interim 2015 property tax bill, according to Franceschini.
Property owners receive an interim tax bill near the beginning of each year, and typically a final bill in May. Payments on the 2015 interim bill were due, April 1 and May 1, according to the city’s website.
“We have contacted the local Church in Toronto and they intend to get this paid forthwith,” Scientology spokesperson Linda Wieland said in an email.
The news comes as the organization says it still plans to convert the Yonge St. building into one of Scientology’s “Ideal Orgs,” which it first announced in early 2013. Scientology describes these facilities as “cathedrals” in desirable locations, “intended to meet increasing demand worldwide for Scientology services and initiatives.”
Scientology claims to have opened 41 Ideal Orgs in recent years.
The organization boarded up the Yonge St. building and submitted an application to the city for interior demolition work in 2013. At the time, Scientology spokesperson Erin Banks said the building’s interior would be remodeled.
Mario Angelucci, Toronto’s deputy chief building official, said a subsequent application submitted last December expands on changes the organization sought two years ago.
Renderings compiled by the Church of Scientology International show red and black banners and a large cross displayed on the building’s Yonge St. façade.
The application to the city says the organization plans “to remove all interior walls on all floors, remove all exterior walls ... and construct new exterior and interior alterations to all floors.”
Critics describe the Ideal Orgs initiative as a vanity project of Scientology leader David Miscavige, intended to attract converts and divert attention from the organization’s waning membership.
“He’s now playing the ‘field of dreams’ game, where you build it and they will come,” said Mark Rathbun, who spent 27 years in the church and served as the organization’s inspector general.
Miscavige also hoped the new Ideal Orgs would be more attractive to celebrities and other prominent figures than the organization’s other facilities, Rathbun said.
“He would say, you know, ‘The orgs are s---holes, and there’s no place you could take somebody who’s, you know, a leader in society,’” Rathbun said.
Wieland said in an email that the Toronto project is being funded through member donations. To date, workers have completed “demolition and site cleanup” at the building.
According to Wieland, “most, but not all [Ideal Orgs] are funded locally.”
Christabelle Crichlow took two Scientology courses before leaving the organization last year. She donated $500 to the Toronto Ideal Org.
Church members were asked repeatedly to donate to the project, said Crichlow, who believes that while Scientology members enthusiastically support it, some people may simply be tapped out.
“There’s only so much people can give,” Crichlow said.
Tony Ortega, a journalist who has reported on Scientology since 1995, said the church lacks the membership necessary to fund ambitious renovations and maintain large properties.
“The idea that they would open these gleaming new buildings and it would create this rush of new people is pure fantasy,” Ortega said.
And because the organization cannot fund the renovations at some locations, Ortega said, they remain in a state of limbo.
Wieland denied this and all claims made by Ortega and Rathbun.
“The facts speak otherwise,” Wieland wrote, responding to the suggestion that some Ideal Orgs do not open promptly because of a lack of donations. Wieland then listed a number of facilities the organization has acquired, expanded or opened.
Metro and Les Affaires recently reported that the organization owes the City of Montreal $117,000 in taxes, plus fines and interest on its downtown location.
The organization purchased the site in 2007 with plans to convert it into an Ideal Org.
The site has remained empty since then, according to the report. A Montreal spokesperson told the paper the organization has not raised sufficient funds for the renovation.
“You [can] probably count, you know, enthusiastic, engaged members on two hands,” Rathbun said of Montreal. “And yet they’re going to build this $50-million palace.”
Wieland would not say if the church has reached its fundraising goals for the Toronto renovation.
The application is currently under review by the city, which has already granted Scientology some zoning bylaw variances.
Wieland said construction documents are still being revised. The organization believes the renovations will be completed in 2015.
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