San Diego rejects televangelist’s plan for huge religious retreat in Mission Valley
Longstanding plans by San Diego televangelist Morris Cerullo to transform an aging Mission Valley hotel into a $160-million religious-themed retreat and conference center failed to win support from the San Diego City Council on Monday after some members raised concerns about the potential for increased traffic congestion.
Although city planners pointed out that the 18-acre project would add little more traffic to the area than what exists today, some council members questioned the validity of the traffic estimates and said for that reason they could not support the project.
Voting against the proposed Legacy International Center, as it is being called, were Council President Myrtle Cole and council members Chris Ward, David Alvarez, Georgette Gomez and Barbara Bry, all Democrats.
The council agreed to continue discussion of the project to Oct. 17, when another major development, the $70-million overhaul of the nearby Town and Country hotel, will also be considered.
Councilman Scott Sherman, whose district includes Mission Valley, had urged the council to support the Cerullo project, acknowledging that while there are some who might not like the 85-year-old televangelist or the idea of a religious-themed development, those sentiments are not sufficient reason to kill the center.
“Yesterday was Constitution Day and in our country we’re afforded certain rights and privileges — the right to free speech, right to assembly and the right to religious freedom,” Sherman said. “We may have disagreements with the applicant, but if they follow the rules and the law, we can’t, nor should we, find against them. This plan does everything that it’s supposed to.”
Home to the recently closed 202-room Mission Valley Resort, the site had attracted considerable attention and speculation ever since Morris Cerullo World Evangelism bought the property out of foreclosure in 2011.
In a video produced several years ago, 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 also would have included event and meeting space for corporate functions, a 127-room hotel, and a combined welcome center and museum space with Christian-themed exhibits and a gargantuan interactive globe.
The project also is part-religious theme park, with its rock wall-lined Roman catacombs, a replica of Jerusalem’s Western Wall and a domed motion-seat theater featuring 4-D biblical films produced by Disney alums.
Members of San Diego’s LGBTQ community spoke out against the project at Monday’s hearing but focused exclusively on traffic issues, saying they feared increased congestion could make it more difficult to reach hospitals in Hillcrest via Bachman Place, just east of the hotel.
“The Legacy project is bad for our community, bad for traffic impacts and a bad deal for San Diego,” said Rebekah Hook-Held of the the San Diego LGBT Community Center. “This 18-acre project is planned to be built in an area already subjected to heavy traffic congestion. Any additional traffic on Hotel Circle or Bachman Place would present life- threatening delays [to the medical centers].”
Councilwoman Lorie Zapf questioned the traffic concerns raised by project critics, suggesting it was the religious nature of the development that was actually fueling opposition. A city planning report noted that the project would generate 221 average daily vehicle trips per acre, which is well below the 380 trips permitted in the Mission Valley community plan.
“The comments I heard were clearly religious-based, and that is not a reason in this country to not have a faith-based project,” Zapf said.
Several members of San Diego’s religious community spoke in favor of the development on Monday.
The project has undergone a couple of iterations over the last few years, moving away from a kitschy, Romanesque design to a more modernist, campus-like setting, softened with meandering gardens, plazas and stone and glass low-rise buildings.
The Legacy Center was also downsized, significantly reducing the expected number of average daily trips, the environmental analysis showed.
Councilman David Alvarez, though, questioned how engineers arrived at some of the traffic computations. For instance, the analysis assumes that only a small percentage of the traffic associated with the 500-seat theater would come from those not already at the Legacy Center for other reasons. Alvarez said he could not see any evidence of how that conclusion was reached.
Project manager Jim Penner said he was surprised by the council vote, especially in light of the project’s unanimous endorsement by the Mission Valley planning group and city Planning Commission.
“That’s a major concern when all these bodies approve it unanimously. To suddenly pick apart the traffic numbers was very surprising,” said Penner, who also is executive director of the Legacy Center Foundation. “We will take Councilman Alvarez at his word that traffic was a concern and we’ll go through the documents and see if we can address his concerns. The story is not over.”
Weisberg writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.