Scientologists' tall new home

Downtown - The church buys the 12-story Stevens Building for $5.4 million

The Oregonian/January 18, 2008

Following the lead of other branches throughout the world, the Church of Scientology of Portland has bought a new headquarters building in downtown to meet the needs of its growing membership.

The church bought the Stevens Building for $5.4 million from a foundation created by real estate investor Joseph Weston.

The building, with nearly 64,000 square feet, represents significant growth for the Portland church.

Local membership has doubled to between 400 and 500 in the past three years, and the church has outgrown its leased space of more than 17,000 square feet a few blocks away, church spokeswoman Gwen Barnard said Thursday.

"People are coming into the church, they're seeing what's going on here and they're staying," Barnard said. "They don't only stay, but they go back and get their wife and their kids and their grandma."

The church plans a massive historical renovation of the 12-story, 94-year-old building at 812 S.W. Washington St., but has no timetable for moving, Barnard said. Ultimately, the church will use the entire building, with a reception center on the ground floor. Classrooms, offices and a chapel that holds 250 will go on the upper floors.

The renovation and move should provide the area around Southwest Ninth Avenue and Washington more pedestrian traffic, said Lew Bowers, a senior development manager for the Portland Development Commission.

More foot traffic and activity could improve safety at O'Bryant Square, the park across the street, Bowers added.

The deal for the Stevens Building, which closed Jan. 8, reflects an international trend for the high-profile and sometimes controversial Church of Scientology. Local churches are buying and renovating historic buildings to keep up with growth.

The church was founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and includes a number of celebrity adherents, including actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Scientology advocates say the church provides counseling and teachings to help members improve their marriages, careers and personal lives. The church has been widely criticized for some of its practices, including its denunciation of psychiatry and the cost of its classes.

The Portland church was founded in 1967 and moved into its current home on Southwest Salmon Street in 1974. It now includes between 800 and 1,200 members throughout Oregon, southwest Washington and Idaho, Barnard said.

Locally, the church has been involved in two high-profile cases. In 1996, a gunman who claimed Scientology ruined his life shot and wounded four people at the Salmon Street headquarters. The church said it had little contact with the shooter and didn't know why he attacked it.

In 1985, a former member won a $39 million fraud judgment against the Church of Scientology in Multnomah County Circuit Court. The award was later overturned on appeal, and the woman reached an out-of-court settlement with the church.

The Stevens Building's current tenants include an attorney, a travel agency, nonprofit agencies and a marketing consultant.

Julianna Jaffe, the artistic director for the Insight Out Theatre Collective, doesn't know much about the church. But after moving into an office at the building about six months ago, she was happy to hear this week that the church will honor the theater's three-year lease.

Barnard said the church is happy to remain downtown, wants to be a good neighbor and hopes to help educate Portland about its teachings.

"We've always felt we've been part of the community," she said. "We want the community to feel the Church of Scientology is accessible to them."

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