Local televangelist Morris Cerullo has asked that everyone "fervently pray" for the city's favor in support of his "end-time project." Cerullo's Legacy International Center project got off to a rocky start, but appears to have smoothed out some rough edges over the past year since hiring the architectural firm Carrier Johnson. The planning commission voted unanimously on June 8 to recommend Cerullo's bibilical-themed resort and missionary training center to the city council.
Cerullo's project proposes to demolish the Mission Valley Resort and adjacent liquor store (875 Hotel Circle South) to build a luxury biblical Wonderland complete with international and interactive exhibits.
Cerullo moved to San Diego in 1959 around the same time the resort was first built (formerly called Mission Valley Inn). Cerullo purchased the property in 2011 when it was auctioned off by the bank.
City staff gave a short presentation that gave the gist of the $150 million project and its impacts. The proposed project includes five key elements: a five-story hotel, a five-level parking garage, a welcome center (with museum and retail), a pavilion (with restaurant, learning center, and theater), and an outdoor plaza. There will be no church onsite.
The project applicant had a lot of asks including to be let out of the Atlas Specific Plan approved by the city council in 1988. City staff explained the seven adjacent properties in this specific plan were once owned by one group but now have seven different owners making it no longer feasible.
City staff pointed out that there were no mitigated impacts due to traffic. This was an issue with the previous design. The applicant asked to build 65 feet tall versus the currently allowed for 40 feet. As a condition, two large view corridors will be provided. The applicant is providing in excess of the 524 parking spaces required.
Before the public testimony began, Commissioner Chair Stephen Haase asked the city attorney to remind everyone to focus on the project and not on who the applicant is.
First up was Jim Penner, the executive director for the project. According to LinkedIn, Penner was formerly a commercial real estate broker representing religious properties and an executive producer for the Hour of Power telecast. Penner was a member of the Mission Valley planning group when the project got their unanimous approval in 2016. Penner recused himself from the vote as did one other member, Steve Abbo, the liquor store tenant on the project site. Abbo has since moved down the street where iconic restaurants Albie's Beef Inn and Adam's Steak 'N Eggs once resided.
Penner spoke briefly before introducing the project architect, Gordon Carrier (Carrier Johnson). Carrier said his design was inspired by traditional faith-based locations but with an added modern twist. Carrier said exterior building materials are largely to be stone and glass with metal accent features.
He touted the new design as leading to 40-percent less traffic than the previous design. The project will widen Hotel Circle South to a fourth lane, from 42 feet to 60 feet. They are creating more open space than is currently there with the idea of making it more pedestrian friendly. Once guests arrive, their car should stay in the parking garage as private shuttles will be offered for seeing the sights outside of the resort.
Public testimony included two speakers in enthusiastic support of the project and one speaker in opposition. First up was former councilmember Tony Young and current tourism authority board member whose firm Civic Link Strategies was hired by Cerullo to lobby the city on behalf of the project. He touted the project's design as setting the tone for where Mission Valley should go versus the currently "bad 1970s sitcom" buildings there now.
Feben Yohannes, a consultant with ties to Carrier Johnson told commissioners she recently opened up an office in Mission Valley and looks forward to the international attributes of the Legacy Center. She made no mention of her connection to Carrier Johnson.
As far as opposition, Rebekah Hook-Held with the San Diego LGBT community center kept her arguments focused on traffic, especially as it related to adjacent Bachman Place which connects the project site to the UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest. What she didn't mention was what she posted on Facebook in 2016 when she called the project "an anti-LGBT theme park."
Conditions tied to the planning commissioner's approval were to tie construction of retaining walls with hotel construction, to look at improving pedestrian access from the frontage to the interior, improving bus shelter shading, adding additional electrical vehicle charging stations in the future, and charging for parking.
Commissioner James Whalen also wanted the condition of a traffic light being installed to Hotel Circle South at I-8 west bound. City staff told Whalen they couldn't make the applicant foot the bill for that traffic light because it's tied to a "horizon  year impact." They said that too much was up in the air as far as the community plan update and that it wouldn't be wise to force something that might not even be needed. Whalen urged them to improve things before 2035, especially in light of all the dense projects they've been approving. City staff said it would be addressed in the community plan update.
Commissioner Haase said to city staff, "What I'm hearing is there are a lot of unknowns. I mean the [I-8] corridor study has been going on for a long time. And it's frustrating that it's been going on for a long time and we don't have certainty of what's going to go on out there and so we — how do we deal with projects when you're telling me you don't know what the future looks like?"
On June 22, Penner answered a few questions about the proposed resort and religious tourism. He said the value of religion in America is larger than Apple and Google combined and some of that is religious tourism. He said Christians travel to celebrate their faith and that San Diego will benefit by adding to that robust tourism sector.
One part of the resort that Penner said is especially unique is the dome theatre with motion seating designed by former Disney Imagineers. "Unlike other dome theaters you have seen, the imagery on our dome screen fills the entire surface of the screen as we are book matching three high-end digital projectors to make that happen. It is truly a full sensory experience with sound, visual, scent, and wind."
A few of the other exhibits Penner mentioned include the replica of Israel's Wailing Wall where they hope to bring in actual stone from Israel for its creation. In the lobby, there will be a 30- by 22-foot digital interactive globe. Another exhibit will include five 20- by 25-foot digital galleries for storytelling.
Will there be a Garden of Eden? Penner said the landscape architect was a little intimidated with the term Garden of Eden so they came up with a Garden of Peace that will be a botanical garden for weddings and other gatherings.
Because of some controversial rumblings in the community, I asked if LGBT community groups would be welcome to use their space. Penner confirmed that everyone is welcome no matter what their beliefs.
When the project finally hits the city council's docket, will personal beliefs be an issue? Chris Ward and Georgette Gomez just came out in opposition to a San Diego conference that focused on gay conversion therapy in mid-June. Cerullo has praised gay conversion therapy in the past.