By Ken Williams | Editor
The massive Morris Cerullo Legacy International Center proposed for 18 acres of prime real estate at 875 Hotel Circle South along Interstate 8 has temporarily stalled in front of the Mission Valley Planning Group.
The volunteer planning group voted 13-0-1 on Feb. 3 to ask the applicant to return — likely for the March 3 monthly meeting — to answer more questions after the Environmental Impact Review (EIR) had been made public and the first round of city responses are known. A standing-room-only crowd asked tough questions about the $125 million project, most concerned about the impact on traffic and the environment. Most of the answers they got from the presenters were vague or evasive.
The project, commonly called the Legacy Center, cleared its first hurdle on Feb. 1 when the planning group’s Design Advisory Board (DAB) voted 6-0 to recommend approval of the architectural design for the eight buildings in the complex totaling 315,000 square feet. The approval came despite remarks from DAB members who called the design “repetitive and boring” and “looking like a low-budget hotel.”
Nevertheless, the DAB vote bounced the project up to the full planning group for review.
The Legacy Center would feature a five-story timeshare building, an office and security building, a training center, a Welcoming Center, plus tourist-style attractions such as catacombs, an Old World bazaar, an amphitheater, and a History Dome theater and artifact museum.
Mission Valley News has extensively covered this project since December and attended every public meeting involving the Legacy Center. It should be noted that two members of the planning group — Jim Penner and Steve Abbo — have conflicts of interest and must recuse themselves from any votes concerning the project. Abbo was dismissed from the meeting, which was held at the Mission Valley Library, while the project was being discussed. Abbo is one of the owners of a liquor and convenience store that will be demolished if the Legacy Center is built. Penner was allowed to answer questions about the Legacy Center, because he is executive director of the Legacy Center Foundation at Morris Cerullo World Evangelism.
The Legacy Center has come under scrutiny for various reasons and raised a number of questions, some asked publicly and some not.
* What would happen if Morris Cerullo, who is 84 and was recently hospitalized, died suddenly? Would the multimillion-dollar project get tied up in probate court for years? Who would inherit Cerullo’s ministry and TV empire, and would they have enough money to complete the project?
* Is the project fully funded? Or does the ministry have to raise more money?
* Why is Mark Harrah, the original architect who is no longer involved in the project, still speaking for Cerullo? How can a planning group make a monumental decision — about such a massive project that will impact Mission Valley for many years to come — when it has not even questioned the new architect, Carrier Johnson?
* Is this really a tourism attraction, as Penner keeps telling the planning group? Or is it actually a training ground to “train an army for God who will then be able to train others,” as Cerullo’s website proclaims? Penner shies away from talking about the conflicting information, focusing only on the tourism angle.
* Planning board member Marco Sessa asked Harrah if the EIR contained any negative public comments. Harrah started evading the question, shaking his head to suggest that there were none or that they had been sufficiently addressed by his group. Sessa interrupted him, saying it was a “yes or no question.” After some audience members raised their voices, Harrah finally answered yes. A representative from the UCSD Health Services spoke up, saying UCSD had commented on the EIR, expressing concerns about the traffic impact on Bachman Place, a two-lane road off Hotel Circle North that leads up the canyon to the Hospital District, Hillcrest and Mission Hills. He said UCSD was also worried about delays for emergency vehicles that sometimes use Bachman Place to get to the Hospital District when the freeways or surface roads are slow-moving due to traffic or accidents. UCSD Medical Center employs hundreds of people, and is a teaching hospital for medical students, and the parking spots along the entire length of Bachman Place are typically full.
* Harrah said the EIR would show that the Legacy Center would have less of a traffic impact than what’s there now: the 202-room Mission Valley Resort Hotel, a liquor store (owned by Abbo), several restaurants and shops, and a shuttered fitness center. The audience grumbled in disbelief. Harrah said the Mission Valley Resort Hotel has about 40 percent occupancy rate; but later, Penner contradicted him by saying it has a 75 percent occupancy rate. But audience members noted that the Legacy Center would have underground parking as well as a five-story parking garage, offering a combined total of 878 parking spots.
* Legacy Village would contain 127 timeshare units, in a five-story structure totaling 136,000 square feet, which would be located on the far southeast portion of the property where the vacated Senior Frog’s fitness complex is. Harrah said they expected people would check in for five or six-day visits. So why is there a need for a 500-seat theater and a 300-seat amphitheater? Even with two people occupying each unit, the demand would appear to be less. Or are they expecting other visitors to pack other nearby hotels?
* Harrah insisted the Legacy Center would be “open 24/7, 365 days a year to the public.” But do San Diegans, a diverse population of many ethnicities and faiths, want to visit a place built by a controversial personality as Morris Cerullo, who proclaims himself a faith healer, miracle worker and prophet? Would a “world class health spa” and a “world class restaurant” attract people who do not agree with Cerullo’s strict religious beliefs?
* Why does the planning group chair, Dottie Surdi, feel compelled to remind the audience about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA)? The act protects the free exercise of religion. Has the planning board been warned by the Cerullo ministry? But is the Legacy Center about religion? Doesn’t Penner keep saying this is a tourism attraction? If so, does the RFRA really apply in this case?
* Harrah said most of the eight buildings would be taxable. Religious exemptions would include the three-story, 23,000-square-foot Executive Offices building that would house the ministry and security team.
According to the planning group, “The proposed mixed-use project requires a Process Five Community Plan Amendment, Atlas Specific Plan Amendment, Rezone, Site Development Permit, Planned Development Permit, Conditional Use Permit and Vesting Tentative Map to construct a mixed-use development with religious, non-denominational, faith-based entertainment center, museum, timeshare, administrative, recreational and commercial uses.”
To review 10 documents related to the EIR, visit bit.ly/1XQvuJo. To learn more about the ministry, visit bit.ly/1XXcrI2. To read more about Cerullo’s vision for the Legacy Center, visit bit.ly/1R5W8tp and bit.ly/1IQu5Go.
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and Mission Valley News and can be reached at email@example.com or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at KenSanDiego, Instagram account at KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.