Scientology closer to constructing expansion
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 1998
LEARWATER -- The Church of Scientology is signaling that its plan for a major expansion in downtown is closer to reality.
Church officials said Thursday that they will have a Nov. 21 groundbreaking. They also have taken the significant step of filing a site plan with the city, which lays out the project's scope and officially sets it in motion.
Although site plans can be changed, this one reveals for the first time the church's plan to provide parking for the six-story, 324,000-square-foot building that will be the cornerstone of the project.
The structure, planned for the 2-acre lot immediately east of Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel, will imitate the hotel's architecture. It also will feature a 150-foot tower and be one of the largest office buildings in Pinellas County.
Aerial walkways will connect the new building to the hotel and to a proposed 3,500-seat auditorium immediately to the south. The auditorium will be named for Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard. It was not on the site plan, but is expected to be added later.
The plan proposes two six-story parking garages on land purchased by the church in recent months. The adjoining garages would be situated about a block east of the building. One fronts Court Street at East Avenue.
The other would be built immediately to the north along Franklin Street.
Together, they would hold about 800 cars, enough under the city's parking code to accommodate traffic generated by the new building.
Still under discussion is whether the garages also could be used for the proposed auditorium.
Although the garages are on the site plan, a wide range of parking solutions remain for the project, said Bob Keller, Clearwater's assistant city manager for economic development.
One possible option under the code is for the church to provide far fewer parking spaces and pay the city a fee instead.
The city could use that money to develop its own parking facility -- one that could be used by the public and Scientology.
Keller said that proposal might give the city control over downtown parking.
"The city's intention, if the building is to go forward, is to make sure that its impact is handled in a very careful way," Keller said.
Scientology spokesman Brian Anderson said the church's site plan could change. He added that the parking solution would be final when the city completes its parking plans for downtown.
The centerpiece building along S Fort Harrison Avenue would be used for Scientology counseling and training. Its design already has been approved by the city.
Submitting the site plan sets the clock in motion for the project. The church now has three years to address the parking issue, work out some smaller traffic problems, acquire a building permit, construct the building and get a certificate of occupancy from the city.