The Church of Scientology has reportedly spent roughly half a billion dollars buying up buildings in US cities over the past few years — but, in many cases, these huge buildings have remained vacant. Now, the US city of Philadelphia is taking the church to court over an empty tower.
Using $US7.85 million in donations, the church bought the 15-story Cunningham Piano building in downtown Philly back in 2007. The idea was to renovate the tower into a “cathedral” called the Philadelphia Freedom Org, which would broadcast L. Ron’s message to the good people of greater Philly. Instead, the building has sat untouched for six years.
Picture: Tim McFarlane
Now, the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections is taking the church to “blight court,” a special municipal court that deals with violations like an ordinance that outlaws any building from boarding up multiple doors and windows (the church’s tower has several).
According to Philly.com, the violation can result in a $US300/day fine — which is chump change in light of the church’s supposedly vast fortunes.
But the Cunningham Piano building is far from the church’s only major real estate holding that has been left abandoned in recent years. According to a New York Times story from 2010, increasing its property holdings is part of the church’s strategy of projecting major growth — despite the fact that its numbers are reportedly dwindling. Scientologists call these structures “ideal orgs,” or prominent urban buildings that bring attention to the church’s mission. They are purchased with donations aggressively wrung from members, and they are often left empty for years pending more cash to complete interior renovations.
“If you find just the right building, you’re going to snap it up if you can, even if you’re not ready to start construction right away,” a Scientology spokesperson told the NYT by way of explanation, while professor and Church of Scientology author Hugh B. Urban gave another explanation, saying it “could be a marketing strategy to give the appearance that Scientology is in a period of massive growth, which would in turn attract people. That’s the kind of thing they’ve done, historically.”
The new Scientology Flag Building in Clearwater, Florida. Construction began in 1999 and cost more than $US40 million. Photo: Tim Boyles/Getty Images.
A January, 2013 BuzzFeed expose about dissent within the church reveals even more about its real estate “boom” — including the fact that keeping these buildings closed is a way for the central church to wring more cash from local members:
According to ex-executives, the Ideal Org money play is simple: Find beautiful buildings; get local parishioners to foot the bill; keep them closed; keep fundraising; open them; and finally, have the parishioners pay for renovations, buy supplies, and send money to the central church for the right to practice there.
The church purchased a massive historical landmark — the 50,800-square foot Braley Building — in Pasadena in 2006. The building sat empty until 2010, when renovations began (it’s now open). Likewise, the church’s most important building, known as the Super Power Building, opened in 2011 after 12 years and $US40 million worth of interior renovations. The pattern seems to be simple: ask for donations to buy the building, then wait for even more donations to finish renovations.
So the fact that the church is being sued for contributing to urban blight in Philly doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually open the building. Rather, it seems to indicate that the church is keeping it closed until local followers contribute enough cash to fund a major renovation. Paradoxically, this new volley of press is likely to help. [Philly.com]