Guiding blight

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER L&I plans to take the Church of Scientology to court over a boarded-up window at their planned headquarters in the former Cunningham Piano building on Chestnut Street.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER L&I plans to take the Church of Scientology to court over a boarded-up window at their planned headquarters in the former Cunningham Piano building on Chestnut Street.
Posted: November 27, 2013

THE CHURCH OF Scientology spent tens of millions of dollars, maybe more, on its massive, new spiritual headquarters in Florida, and all Philly got in the last six years was a piece of plywood with splotches of brown paint on it.

Earlier this month, church leader David Miscavige - who grew up in Burlington and Delaware counties - was joined by Scientology stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta in downtown Clearwater to cut the ribbon on the 377,000-square-foot "Flag Building."

Meanwhile, Philadelphia's Department of Licenses & Inspections intends to take the church to Blight Court over the tall, vacant building across from Macy's near 13th and Chestnut streets that has sat empty for more than six years. The church purchased the 15-story former Cunningham Piano building in 2007 for $7.85 million and laid out detailed plans for the "Philadelphia Freedom Org" on philadelphiaideal.org, including a chapel, a bookstore and even an office for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986.

"At fifteen stories in height, The Freedom Org is the Church's first 'skyscraper,' a shining example of the religion that can and does secure Total Freedom for all," the website proclaims.

No work had been done there when the Daily News contacted the church in 2011 for a profile on Miscavige, although spokeswoman Karin Pouw said that interior designs were finished and construction documents were being completed. Miscavige, who still roots for Philly sports teams, would attend a ribbon-cutting if his schedule permitted, Pouw added.

"We hope to commence renovations toward the end of 2012 for a spring 2013 opening," Pouw wrote in an email Dec. 13, 2011.

On Monday, the building looked much the same as it did two years ago, except for the plywood that covered a large street-level window. A battered, metal call box sat open by the door with wires dangling out. Inside the dark foyer, cardboard boxes were crumpled atop one another.

"I don't understand what's going on there," said Paul Levy, president of the Center City District. "It's obviously a free country, and they bought the building, but here we are six years later, and they've done nothing. It's not only not contributing to the street and acting to the detriment to the city, it's also not a tax revenue."

One of Miscavige's biggest accomplishments at the helm of Scientology was gaining tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service in 1993. Levy said the Chestnut Street building has a market value of $7.3 million.

Last week, Pouw said the Philadelphia Ideal Org "is definitely on the lineup, but planning changes have necessitated completing other projects first." She also said planning and construction documents are "in progress" for the building "and about 50 other properties internationally."

Rebecca Swanson, a spokeswoman for L&I, said the Church of Scientology has obtained no permits for construction on the property and has been in violation of the city's "doors-and-windows" ordinance since January for having "multiple boarded windows."

As a result of the outstanding violation, Swanson said, the city is sending Scientology to Blight Court, a municipal-court hearing that could result in fines of up to $300 per day for each boarded opening.

"The property owner has failed to comply [with] the violation, despite notice from L&I, and the building remains a blighting influence on the block and the neighborhood," Swanson said.

In an email yesterday, Pouw said the church would address the window issue soon. She wrote that a "single window that a workman temporarily repaired with plywood" was "hardly news."

"[A]n occasional broken window is an occupational hazard when one undertakes the kind of extensive building restoration projects in major urban areas that we do," Pouw wrote.

Scientology critics say the church purchases "Ideal Org" buildings around the world through constant fundraising efforts, but that most are empty because the church allegedly exaggerates its numbers.

Even if an adequate building is already in use, "the locals are put under intense pressure to raise millions of dollars to purchase a historic building for a new Ideal Org," said Tony Ortega, a journalist who has been writing about Scientology since 1995. "After the property is secured, there's then another round of fundraising to raise millions more for renovations."

The Daily News reached out to six top donors on a list of more than 200 contributors on the Philadelphia Freedom Org website, but none returned calls seeking comment.

Pouw said Scientology has 10,000 adherents in the Philadelphia area, where a smaller building on Race Street near 13th is still in use by the church. One former church member who lived in Philly for 25 years and asked not to be identified said fewer than 100 Scientologists were active in the city.

A Google Maps image of Chestnut Street from 2011 showed signs of life in the one-story building owned by the church adjacent to the former Cunningham Piano building. Men sat at a table outside, and posters in the window promoted "Free Stress Tests" and Hubbard's famous book, Dianetics. On Monday, a "Closed" sign sat in the window behind a metal gate, and locals said it's been that way for a long time.

"We look at that place longingly. We could just knock down the wall and expand the bar," said Todd O'Connor, a managing partner at the German beer hall Bru next door. "It's such a blight. It just doesn't make sense to us."


On Twitter: @JasonNark

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