CLEARWATER — In October, the Church of Scientology’s Freedom magazine published renderings of L. Ron Hubbard Hall, a long-planned 3,600-seat auditorium honoring the group’s founder on the campus of its international spiritual headquarters downtown.
“As designs are finalized, permits acquired and land prepared, the buzz is speeding around the globe,” the publication declared, adding that Scientologists were spreading the news “like wildfire.”
Since then, Scientology has pushed social media ads calling the project "the largest architectural undertaking in Clearwater’s history” and suggested it was ready to start.
However, 26 years after first announcing the project, it appears the church is still far from breaking ground.
Scientology applied in November 2018 for a building permit to construct a $137 million auditorium on the 2-acre site on Garden Avenue that is now a vacant lot with a small office building. More than a year later, the church has not secured approval from the city of Clearwater to begin construction.
The permit is held up because Scientology has not responded to minor feedback from the city: requirements to install erosion control measures and tree barricades, according to building records.
“It’s up to them to react,” building official Kevin Garriott said.
The church gained control of the property at 319 S Garden Ave. in 1993 and that year announced plans to build a sprawling auditorium. Scientology officials at the time said the hall was being designed in conjunction with the massive redevelopment of a full city block directly north, the site now occupied by the Flag Building, a mecca for training and courses not offered anywhere else in the world.
The new renderings in Freedom show a 1-acre property along S Fort Harrison Avenue (now a parking lot and one-story office) transformed into an entrance park fronting the auditorium with water features, benches and landscaping. An accompanying article states the park will include pillars bearing the 21 precepts of The Way to Happiness, a “moral code” written by Hubbard.
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The park feature is a surprise to city officials. Plans submitted by the church last year made no mention of it.
“The downtown zoning district is very detailed, and without a detailed proposal it is difficult to say if this would or would not be in compliance with the downtown standards,” Planning and Development Director Gina Clayton said about the park after being shown the rendering for the first time.
Although Scientology filed notice with Pinellas County in August of its intent to demolish the small offices on the plaza and auditorium sites, the buildings are still standing.
Church spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to questions about the project or a request to interview Scientology leader David Miscavige.
Scientology has a history of prolonging major construction work.
The seven-story, 377,000-square-foot Flag Building opened in November 2013 after 15 years of on-and-off construction and allegations the church delayed completion as a tactic to solicit more money from members.
A 2011 Tampa Bay Times investigation showed the church started raising money for the building six years before construction began in 1998.
Construction stalled in 1999 and 2003, then started again in 2009. Scientology would raise more than $145 million, far beyond the $100 million project cost often cited by the church, the Times found.
By 2011 the city had charged Scientology more than $413,500 in code violations.
In January 2013, former Scientologists Rocio and Luis Garcia of Irvine, Calif., filed a federal fraud lawsuit, alleging the church prolonged the project "as a shill'' to continue raising money.
The Garcias contributed more than $340,000 to the project before leaving the church in 2011 and wanted a refund. The couple filed an appeal in April, several years after a federal judge ordered that the case be resolved in Scientology’s internal arbitration system.
Scientology has again turned to top donors to raise money for L. Ron Hubbard Hall. In an interview last month, billionaire venture capitalist and prominent Scientologist Bob Duggan said he has donated “deca-millions” to the auditorium project.
RELATED: The man who gave Scientology $360 million actually answered the phone
According to the 2018 plans submitted to the city, events currently held at Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel 350 feet away will be relocated to the new hall. The plans state the auditorium will be supported by the existing 638-space parking garage directly east of the site.
Freedom stated the hall’s 3,600 seats — 1,420 more than Clearwater’s signature performance facility Ruth Eckerd Hall — will be retractable so it can be used as a banquet facility. It will also have lounges, dining and kitchen facilities.
Scientology stepped up promotion of L. Ron Hubbard Hall following a Times investigation published Oct. 20, which showed that over the past three years, limited liability companies tied to Scientology bought about 100 commercial properties in the center of downtown. Of the $103 million spent by the companies, $99 million was paid in cash.
RELATED: How Scientology doubled its downtown footprint in just 3 years
The buying surge began in early 2017 as the city approved the conceptual plan for Imagine Clearwater, now a $64 million renovation of the downtown waterfront. In April this year, the City Council changed the design for the waterfront concert pavilion from an uncovered band shell to an outdoor amphitheater with a canopy over 4,000 seats.
Scientology’s real estate push also overlapped with an April 2017 council vote, when the city bought a vacant lot on the downtown waterfront that the church also bid on. In just three years, Scientology and its followers doubled their downtown footprint compared to the decades since the church arrived in 1975.
Freedom said the hall will be “a 21st century exercise in development and event technology" with an all-glass facade and high-tech equipment. The article predicts the auditorium will attract more than 200,000 people and hundreds of events each year.
It also states Scientology will open the auditorium for use by outside nonprofits and charities, like it says it does with the Fort Harrison Hotel.
According to Freedom, there were 70 events held in the Fort Harrison in 2019 that brought 10,628 guests.
Of the 34 events provided in the magazine as examples, at least 21 had direct affiliation to Scientology.