New Haven Independent/November 16, 2018

By Thomas Been

Scientology Church Gets OK To Rebuild

The Church of Scientology of Connecticut got the thumbs up to convert a vacant Westville former furniture warehouse into a place of worship, despite reservations of two neighbors who lambasted the organization for long neglecting the property and spurning the community.

During Wednesday night’s regular monthly City Plan Commission meeting on the second floor of City Hall, commissioners voted unanimously to approve the Church of Scientology of Connecticut’s site plan to convert the former Masonic Temple and Hallock’s furniture store at 949 Whalley Ave. into a “community meeting space” for the church.

The church, a local chapter of a modern international religion founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, popularized by Hollywood celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and sharply criticized by investigative journalists like Lawrence Wright, purchased the former Westville furniture store in 2003 for $1.5 million.

The church has left the building vacant for the past 15 years. Most recently it has been operating instead out of a smaller building further up the road at 980 Whalley Ave.

Despite the protests of a Whalley Avenue alder and a neighborhood economic development booster, the commissioners approved the church’s site plan, arguing that the City Plan Commission as an administrative body can only evaluate technical planning concerns and zoning compliance. It cannot enforce anti-blight violations or community indignation.

“They would be well served to engage more with the local community,” Westville Alder and City Plan Commissioner Adam Marchand cautioned the church’s representatives. But, regarding the site plan presented on Wednesday, he said, “They seem to be in compliance.”

The City Plan staff report for the church’s proposed conversion of the former Hallock’s, which was first built as a Masonic Temple in 1926, is scant on details about actual renovations.

“The proposed project consists of the renovation of the existing 18,907 SF building in a community meeting space for the Church of Scientology of Connecticut,” the report reads. “Proposed site improvements include the installation of stormwater management infrastructure, landscaping, and the repaving of the existing parking lot.”

The three professionals representing the church’s site plan proposal on Wednesday night offered no other insight on what would actually happen within the building once the conversion is complete.

“No comment,” said Larry Nardecchia, a project manager from the New Jersey-based real estate firm Avison Young. He said a church representative would have to provide any information on what will actually happen inside the building.

Christopher Sanders, an architect from Atlanta, Georgia, and Brian Brewer, a lawyer from Richmond, Virginia, similarly declined to comment on the use of the building.

The Church of Scientology of Connecticut did not respond to a request for comment by the publication time of this article.

During the group’s presentation before the commissioners, Sanders did explain what kind of construction work the church plans to undertake in its conversion of the vacant building.

He said that the church will restore the masonry on the building, fill cracks, repair walls, and install a new roof. He said the conversion also calls for the demolition and reconstruction of a small extension in the rear of the building, which, when renovated, will serve as a gym for the church’s members.

Sanders also briefly showed a design rendering of the converted church, dramatically lit with a purple sky and a handful of spotlights sprinkled throughout the facade.

City Plan staffer Anne Hartjen seized on the rendering as a potential problem for the site plan review. She said that the church had not submitted that image as part of its site plan package; that the image included “monument lighting,” which involves light fixtures pointing up or down to spotlight specific sections of a building in dramatic and bright halos of light; and that “monument lighting” is specifically prohibited by New Haven zoning law.

Sanders responded that this design isn’t actually how the building will look. This rendering was just an example of what Marchand dubbed “artistic exuberance.”

“What would be the hours of operation?” asked Commissioner Leslie Radcliffe.

Brewer said he is not exactly sure, but that other Scientology church projects he has worked on throughout the country tend to be open between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.

“We’ve worked on various projects for the client,” said Sanders. “There’s usually one main event that happens a couple times a year.”

Radcliffe said she had no idea what that means. A couple hundred people three times a year? And how much foot and car traffic on a weekly basis?

Anderson, Brewer, and Nardecchia said they did not know exactly how many people will be using the converted church and when. But they said they are confident that the existing parking lot can accommodate the projected number of visitors.

During the public hearing section of the meeting, Westville/Edgewood/Beaver Hills/Amity/Beverly Hills Alder Richard Furlow and Westville Village Renaissance Alliance (WVRA) Executive Director Lizzy Donius both asked the commissioners to table or turn down the site plan proposal, not necessarily because of any technical concerns with the plans, but because of what they have perceived to be a decade-and-a-half of bad neighborly relations.

Furlow said his complaints with the church relate to its poor maintenance of the 949 Whalley property over the past 15 years. He said the grass is routinely overgrown. There are often broken windows and piles of trash about the property, he said. He said no one he has ever spoken to at the church has ever followed through on his persistent requests that they keep the building clean and secure.

“Unfortunately there’s a lot of bad blood in the community with this organization that a little bit of effort would have resolved,” he said.

Donius offered similar concerns.

“I do feel like the community has not been engaged,” she said. She said representatives from the church came to a recent meeting of the Westville Community Management Team, but spoke only about a drug treatment program and spoke nothing about their plans for 949 Whalley.

“The building is genuinely blighted,” she said. “This is our number one economic development issue.”

Ultimately, the commissioners said that they could do little more than sympathize with the neighbors’ concerns and urge the church to be a better neighbor. They said their purview is zoning regulation compliance. Anti-blight concerns would and should still be enforced by the city’s anti-blight Livable City Initiative (LCI), they said.

“This is a very difficult problem,” City Plan Commission Chair Ed Mattison said. “This is quite an impressive demonstration of what could be done” with the property.

Marchand said that he shares the concerns of the community, but that he believes that the application is in compliance with zoning law. The best-case scenario would be the church actually following through on its conversion plans and bringing more foot traffic and activity to that stretch of Whalley, Marchand said.

Nardecchia predicted that the church would begin construction in late January and complete construction by the end of February 2020.

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