By Ken Williams | Editor
Jan. 15 deadline to comment on Morris Cerullo project
The public has until Jan. 15 to make comments on the Environmental Impact Review (EIR) for a televangelist’s massive mixed-use project that would bulldoze the Mission Valley Resort Hotel complex and turn the property into a “destination resort” for his followers from around the world.
The proposed Morris Cerullo Legacy International Center would feature a five-story timeshare building on the back of the property and tourist-style attractions such as catacombs, an Old World bazaar, an amphitheater, and a History Dome theater where viewers would be misted when the Red Sea parts during a 3D biblical movie.
The project’s first big hurdle will be the completion of the public comments section of the EIR. The city’s Planning Department is collecting the public’s input concerning this project. To review 10 documents related to the EIR and to make comments by the deadline, visit bit.ly/1XQvuJo.
The proposed Legacy Center would be built at 875 Hotel Circle South on 18.1 prime acres located directly off an Interstate 8 exit in Mission Valley. If constructed, the center’s location would not only impact traffic in Mission Valley but also on Bachman Place leading up the canyon to the Hospital District, Hillcrest and Mission Hills, which are all directly above the project.
Cerullo, 84, is a controversial Pentecostal televangelist who owns the Mission Valley Resort Hotel and the buildings in the complex that house other businesses. The property is west of Hotel Iris and the Holiday Inn Express & Suites, and east of the Travelodge.
Critics from across the world have challenged the evangelist’s claims of being a faith healer, miracle worker and prophet, but that has not stopped him from building a global ministry and reportedly becoming a multimillionaire. A San Diego resident since 1961, Cerullo currently bases his organization at 3545 Aero Court in the Serra Mesa neighborhood. His two spokesmen told Mission Valley Planning Group that the Legacy Center project is now fully funded, with much of the money raised through donations by Cerullo’s followers from around the world.
The project was last presented as an informational item in March 2015, and reviewed again by Mission Valley Planning Group’s Design Advisory Board (DAB) on Monday, Jan. 4. Although the project was listed as an action item on the agenda, no action was taken. Mission Valley News attended the session, where members criticized the project and the EIR as being incomplete.
Mission Valley News also attended the Mission Valley Planning Group meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 6, where the project was removed from the agenda as an action item and changed to an informational item.
During the comment period, some people questioned the project’s enormous size — eight buildings totaling 315,000 square feet — and its impact on traffic and the environment. Members of the local LGBT community wondered how the Legacy Center and Cerullo’s deeply conservative biblical beliefs would fit into a city known for tolerance and acceptance of many cultures and religions. Another audience member noted that Cerullo has been criticized by rabbis for trying to convert Jews to Christianity. And the Hillcrest hospitals sent representatives to observe the presentation over concerns about possible impacts to ambulances rushing to emergency rooms.
One of the curious observations was that Mark Harrah, the original architect who is no longer involved in the project, attended both sessions as the presenter and has been pushing for the project to move forward. A representative of the new architect, Carrier Johnson, was in attendance at the DAB meeting but only as an observer. Some DAB members wondered whether the new architect would follow the previous advice of the planning group.
Also present at both meetings was Jim Penner, executive director of the Legacy Center Foundation at Morris Cerullo World Evangelism. A former executive producer at “Hour of Power” for the Crystal Cathedral Ministries run by the late Dr. Robert H. Schuller, Penner is also a member of the Mission Valley Planning Group. Penner spoke, not as a planner but as a Cerullo spokesman, due to his conflict of interest.
Harrah tried hard to convince DAB members that he had modified architectural plans to satisfy the group’s concerns. For example, the original “Ancient Rome” motif with an overuse of domes has been updated to reflect a Mediterranean/Tuscan style, common in some San Diego neighborhoods, he said.
At the DAB meeting, board members Paul Brown, Jerry Shonkwiler and Bruce Warren were skeptical of Harrah’s claim that he had made requested changes, since he did not present any new visual evidence, such as 3D renderings or architectural drawings showing the project’s scale and environmental impact. Warren chided Harrah and Penner for expecting DAB members to advance a massive project like this, based on “good faith” promises. So they, along with chair Randy Dolph, requested that the architects return to the next DAB meeting — at 3:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 1 at the Mission Valley Library — with a full presentation. The public is invited to attend that meeting.
The project is expected to be listed on the agenda as an action item for both DAB and the planning group, which next meets at noon Wednesday, Feb. 3. Since the planning group could cast a vote, public comments will also be appropriate at that time.
The Legacy Center is being pitched to planners and the city as a project that will boost local tourism.
“We think people from all over the world will come to the Legacy Center and stay at nearby hotels,” Harrah told DAB members. “We think this will add to the economy of San Diego,” adding that it would appeal to Christians.
Penner said it was about the “history of the Judeo-Christian faith, a history of Christ on this Earth.” They touted Cerullo’s collection of ancient artifacts and the re-creation of biblical history, such as St. Paul’s prison cell in Rome. They promised exhibitions of Torahs that date back 400 years and original Gutenberg Bibles. They marveled about ongoing features, such as “Wings Over Israel,” “Journey Through the Bible” and “March of Prophecy.”
“Even if you were an atheist,” Harrah said, “you would be impressed.”
But on Cerullo’s website, the message is quite different.
“The mission of the Morris Cerullo Legacy Center is to equip the Body of Christ to work the works of God until Jesus comes. Through God’s plan for evangelism, the Morris Cerullo Legacy Center will continue to train an army for God who will then be able to train others,” the website states.
At the planning group meeting, John Horst, chair of the Mira Mesa planning group, questioned whether the Legacy Center’s mission was tourism or evangelism. Penner admitted that the Training Center would be used to teach foreigners how to pastor their flocks.
The proposed Legacy Center would have eight buildings, including:
* The Welcoming Center, a two-story, 17,000-square-foot structure. According to Cerullo’s website: “Through a stunning multi-media presentation, visitors will witness the drama of God imparting into Morris Cerullo’s spirit that His heartbeat is wrapped up in one word —SOULS. The center of the Rotunda will feature an immense, life-sized mural that will lead visitors through the amazing life and ministry of Morris Cerullo.”
* History Dome Theater and artifact museum, comprising 30,000 square feet.
* The underground Catacombs, 6,000 square feet of retail space and a learning center.
* Training Center Pavilion, totaling 105,000 square feet and including a grand foyer, learning center, retail gift shop, restaurant, theater, TV studio and a wellness center.
* Legacy Village, 127 timeshare units in a five-story structure totaling 136,000 square feet that would be located on the far southeast portion of the property.
* Executive offices, a three-story building providing 23,000 square feet of office space.
* A 300-seat amphitheater with a raised stage would be built between the main buildings and the timeshares.
* An underground parking structure with 314 stalls would take up 114,000 square feet and an above-ground parking structure with 280 stalls would be 94,000 square feet.
A central plaza and an outdoor water feature is also planned, along with a large outdoor swimming lagoon. It is not known if California’s drought restrictions will impact the water feature, which project officials said was being considered as a way to mitigate noise from the nearby freeway.
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 learn more about the ministry, visit its website at bit.ly/1XXcrI2.
—Ken Williams is editor of Mission Valley News and Uptown 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.