Televangelist's planned resort gets a major redesign but wailing wall still there

At first blush, the sophisticated renderings bespeak a modernist, campus-like setting, embroidered with meandering gardens, plazas, and stone and glass low-rise buildings. There are restaurants and a theater, a luxury hotel and a spa.

But look a little closer and it’s quickly apparent this 18-acre Mission Valley project is no ordinary retreat. The brainchild of San Diego televangelist Morris Cerullo, the planned Legacy International Center, with its Disney-esque attractions and biblical-themed exhibits, has been completely redesigned since a less-than-enthusiastic debut early last year.

The former Roman-style motif with its columns, arches and rotunda was quickly discarded, scattered surface parking was banished, and the project size was trimmed by more than 200,000 square feet, courtesy of newly hired architect Carrier Johnson + Culture.

The San Diego firm was largely given free rein to re-envision the center with a sparer, contemporary design intended to be far more welcoming to pedestrians. A bonus was a sharp decrease in projected traffic, a concern highlighted in the initial environmental impact report and seized on by the project’s early critics.

What has not vanished, though, are attractions likely to make the development a Mission Valley curiosity for years to come: rock wall-lined Roman catacombs (but no longer underground); a replica of Jerusalem's wailing wall; a domed motion-seat theater featuring 4D-style biblical films produced by Disney alums — and a holographic greeting from Morris Cerullo and his wife Theresa.

The development, expected to cost $160 million, is due to go before the San Diego Planning Commission next week, although city staff on Friday said it is seeking a continuance because it needs more time to review “additional technical information.” City Council approval will be needed as well. If given the go-ahead, the project could open by 2019.

“When they came back to us last year with an entirely new design, I complimented the developer at the time and said this really takes courage to go back to your board and say we need to make a wholesale change,” recalled Mission Valley Planning Group member Andrew Michajlenko, himself an architect. “So to me, that was really shocking to see that happen, but the project was phenomenally improved.”

Cerullo, widely known for his overseas crusades and worldwide ministering for the last 70 years, acknowledged the difficult decision in a recent eight-minute video designed to introduce people to the Legacy Center project.

“We designed the Legacy Center with a certain architectural look. This past year when we came face to face with the finality of that, in June of 2016, we discarded it. Totally,” he says with an emphatic tone. “Now that took a lot of spiritual fortitude to discard several years of work and almost start all over again until we got what we saw in the vision.”

Located on Hotel Circle South, the project site is currently occupied by the aging 202-room Mission Valley resort, a mini-mart and now closed Frogs gym, bought out of foreclosure in 2011 by Morris Cerullo World Evangelism. In a video produced several years earlier, the now 85-year-old Cerullo said the project was a “fulfillment of a vision, a dream that God gave to me.”

Not only was the development conceived to serve as the new headquarters of Cerullo’s operation, but it was also designed to offer event and meeting space for corporate functions, a 127-room hotel for leisure and business travelers, and a combined welcome center and museum space with Christian-themed exhibits and a gargantuan interactive globe that would include pop-up information on Cerullo’s work around the globe.

As tantalizing as that all sounded to project manager Jim Penner, there was something about the early design that troubled him. Would it appeal to millennials, would it be an inviting environment for visitors? Was it a timeless design?

“I did a lot of research on attraction-type spaces, from high-end museums to presidential libraries to the (still unopened) Museum of the Bible, and spending time there, I watched how people interact in those spaces, with touchy-feely interactive exhibits vs. a painting on a wall,” said Penner, executive director of the Legacy Center. “I brought that information back and said, everything I heard you want this to be — to be international, to speak to a broad range of cultures — I’m highly recommending we sit down with Carrier Johnson and look at a new approach of what the architecture should look like.”

Also nagging at Penner was a design that incorporated parked cars throughout the development. (Carrier Johnson designer Lina As’ad likened the early design to a big parking lot.)

“You could be coming out of this wailing wall and five feet away from me I’d be standing next to a parking lot and there’s a brand new corvette there and you’ve immediately taken people out of the environment,” Penner said.

“There wasn’t that wonderful flow like when you go to the Getty or a university or museum in D.C., where you walk out and you’re standing in a garden. That always bothered me.”

It bothered Carrier Johnson as well, which reduced the number of buildings from six to four, added public plazas and what it calls a Garden of Eden and Mount of Olives Garden, and relocated what had been a partially underground parking garage on the street frontage to the back of the project and made it all above ground.

Oh, and those catacombs, which in a nod to historical accuracy were going to be underground? Given the costs and issues associated with doing anything underground in Mission Valley’s river valley, they were moved above ground to Legacy’s Vision Center but will be made to feel like a darkened, subterranean space.

“It’s just like when you’re at Disneyland and you walk into into the Indiana Jones ride,” said Penner. You feel like you’re underground but you’re not.”

On a larger scale, the earlier Legacy Center design just felt out of place in San Diego, let alone Mission Valley, said Carrier Johnson architects.

“Before, it had a lot of arches, a lot of heavy detail and one of the things I like about being in Southern California is how the buildings can complement the environment without having all that ornamentation to convey something beautiful,” said Vincent Mudd, managing partner at Carrier Johnson. “So we went backwards and said, let’s sit down with Dr. Cerullo and figure out what they’re doing.

“He trains ministers to have their own churches outside of the country so he wasn’t trying to build a church but a place where you’re learning about faith. So it could be more a place where you could explore and enjoy a park-like setting.”

In addition to downsizing from more than 532,000 square feet to 307,000 square feet, the project yielded far fewer average daily trips, going from 4,400 to 2,873, not much more than what is generated by the current hotel and convenience store.

Among those with early concerns was the UC San Diego Health Hillcrest campus, which cited potential traffic tie-ups at Bachman Place, a route that leads directly from Mission Valley to Hillcrest. Those traffic impacts have been eased with the redesign.

“The most important component was that the folks with Morris Cerullo listened to the concerns of the planning group, and to the extent they could within their business model they made changes to address the concerns,” said planning group member Marco Sessa, senior vice president of Sudberry Properties, developer of the Civita mixed-use community in Mission Valley. “It originally had a very themed, Disneyland-ish architecture, and when they came back they came up with a design that was more in keeping with the community.

“When you look at Mission Valley as a whole and go all the way west to SeaWorld and Mission Bay, Mission Valley does lend itself to having a little bit of an entertainment component. You have a lot of hotel rooms in that area, and whether you like the fact it has a religious bent or not was not something that was a land use decision.”

Religious-themed attractions, while relatively rare, do exist and some have had mixed success. Among those currently operating are the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, the Creation Museum in Kentucky and the Ark Encounter, a Christian evangelical theme park that opened in Kentucky last year. What sets the Cerullo project apart from the others is that it has a resort hotel tied to it.

While the goal of the development is to become an “internationally celebrated destination for religious tourism,” Penner believes the new design will help broaden the appeal of a development that he says is not dependent on faith or the religious fervor of visitors to succeed.

He offers as an example plans for a huge interactive globe that will span 40 feet and incorporate more than 40 interactive touch screens. Visitors, with just a touch of a finger, will be able to land on a global destination and learn more about it, from its demographics and politics — and, only if you’re interested, the missionary work Cerullo has done there.

Nearby, though, will be individual exhibit rooms, designed as audio-visual storytelling galleries that might showcase the history of the Jewish faith, or the miracles of Jesus, or the history of Cerullo and evangelism. The project, if approved, would be built debt-free, with the help of an ongoing fundraising campaign. Penner would not say how much money has been raised so far nor how close the Cerullo organization is to meeting its goal.

“This was always meant to reach a very broad audience, whether you’re an atheist, or a Buddhist or a Muslim or Christian,” said Penner. “The previous design was supposed to do that, and obviously it wasn’t; otherwise, we’d be building that.”

The reality is it’s unlikely it will have the broader appeal of more conventional destination attractions, given the religious trappings of the project, suspects San Diego Tourism Authority CEO Joe Terzi.

“It might work for some people, but for others it could be a potential turnoff,” he said. “Part of the purpose is to communicate religious beliefs though building something that people would be attracted to. If it weren’t religious in nature it wouldn't be built.”

Artful design, though, can help blunt that perception, believes Mudd of Carrier Johnson.

“I don’t think you will get the feeling this is over-proselytizing,”he said. “In the renderings you’ll see the word peace in 75 different languages — in stone, on pavers. The idea is you want people to feel as though you’re speaking to them. The words aren’t necessarily about faith.”

lori.weisberg@sduniontribune.com

(619) 293-2251

Twitter: @loriweisberg

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