Church of Scientology buys site in Center City

It has purchased more spacious quarters on Chestnut Street and plans to expand.

Retailers, restaurants and other businesses are flocking to Center City.

Now comes another flock.

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Scientology's new home in Center City will include the tallest building in the 1300 block of Chestnut Street.

The Church of Scientology last month paid just under $8 million for a vacant 15-story office building and an adjoining one-story former toy store in the heart of downtown: the 1300 block of Chestnut Street - across the street from Macy's and next door to the furniture store Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams.

The Scientologists - outgrowing their modest home on Race Street - plan to combine and renovate the properties at 1312-16 Chestnut St. into a center that will include a chapel, offices, an academy, and displays on the church's community programs, said Bruce Thompson, public-affairs director of the Church of Scientology of Pennsylvania.

He said the property, of which the church would be the sole occupant, would be "a real asset to the area" and "open to all," including other groups. He did not know how much the renovations would cost or when they would be completed.

The move represents a bold step in Scientology's bid for visibility - literally. It will be the church's tallest building in the world, Thompson said.

Scientology's local staff of about 35 people will triple, Thompson said.

Scientology, which counts actors Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Isaac Hayes among its 10 million members, has been investing heavily in real estate and owns high-profile centers in London, Berlin, Madrid and New York.

Property taxes for 2007 on the Chestnut Street parcels were $56,195, according to city records. But if the acquisition is deemed to be a house of worship, it will be exempted from taxes.

The church does not pay tax on its headquarters at 1315 Race St., which it bought for $325,000 in 1979.

Thompson said the church would sell the Race Street building, which will face the back of the expanded Convention Center.

Scientology is a body of teachings created in the 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard, a science-fiction author who held that a person is in fact a being called a Thetan. Scientologists believe in one-on-one "auditing," or spiritual counseling.

Locally, members also delivered 180 antidrug lectures in the last year, Thompson said.

Thompson said there are "hundreds" of Scientologists across the region and more than 10,000 people on the local mailing list.

Scientology has come under scrutiny for its methods of proselytizing and its involvement in the everyday lives of its members. Germany classifies it as a business, not as a religion.

The Chestnut Street buildings were sold by Tony Goldman of Goldman Properties, a New Yorker who in the last decade has bought and developed millions of dollars in real estate in Center City's once-seedy 13th Street corridor, now known as Midtown Village.

Goldman paid $2.45 million in 2001 for the high-rise at 1312-14 Chestnut, known as the Cunningham Building. In 2005 - shortly before Goldman announced plans to develop the property as condos - he paid $900,000 for the adjacent store at 1316.

Goldman and his associates did not return phone calls for comment.

"They were a pleasure to work with - I've rarely seen such efficiency from a buyer," said Jonathan Stavin of CB Richard Ellis, the sole broker in the transaction. Stavin said church officials from around the country visited the buildings during the "due diligence" phase of their purchase.

The purchase did not sit well with broker Larry Steinberg of Michael Salove Co., who believed that the church would be an odd fit. "The two best retail spaces east of Broad on Chestnut Street are now unavailable," Steinberg said.

But Stavin said the church would be open after usual office hours, enabling workers and members to patronize nearby retailers.


Contact staff writer Michael Klein at 215-854-5514 or mklein@phillynews.com.