In October, San Diego City Council Approved 18-Acre Christian-Themed Center
In our continuing saga to track developments in Mission Valley, we have to note that just about one month ago, on October 17, the San Diego City Council approved televangelist Morris Cerullo’s $130 – 160 million Legacy International Center project. The Center will replace the former Mission Valley Resort at 875 South Hotel Circle Drive on an 18-acre site at the west end of Mission Valley.
That’s the main headline.
But what the Council also did was approve a mini Disneyland-type of religious theme park that will promote controversial religious tourism. This project will be owned by the head of an extremist Evangelical empire who is outspoken in his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage; who was expelled from India for religious disturbances; who is criticized by rabbis for trying to convert Jews; and whose disputed claims of being a faith healer and miracle worker have led to at least one documented death.
He was also indicted for failing to report his total income for over 3 years in the 1990s, though charges were dismissed years later on a technicality.
Here’s what the residents and visitors of Mission Valley and San Diego have to look forward to with the new Center, expected to open in October 2019:
- Legacy Center will serve as the new headquarters of Cerullo’s operations;
- the project encompasses five buildings;
- a ministry training facility;
- event and meeting space for corporate functions,
- a 127-room hotel,
- a combined welcome center
- museum space with Christian-themed exhibits and a huge interactive globe, to include
- attractions of an amusement park,
- rock-wall-lined Roman catacombs,
- a replica of Jerusalem’s Western Wall
- a domed motion-seat theater featuring 4-D biblical films produced by Disney Imagineering alums.
The main attraction inside the 40,000-square foot legacy vision center is a 56-foot dome screen motion ride inspired by Disney’s Soarin’ over the World. The executive director of the Legacy Center Foundation, Jim Penner, said they hired former Disney Imagineers to design a ride where you fly over Israel. He said:
“It’s literally hang gliding the entire nation of Israel, where you can see the Jordan River and Jerusalem, and the Dead Sea and the Wailing Wall, and all of these great, iconic places that a lot of people will never get to visit.”
One news station called the Council decision, “The first step in making San Diego a religious tourism destination.”
The large site on the south side of I-8 was bought by Morris Cerullo World Evangelism out of foreclosure in 2011. Cerullo — now 86 — has called the project a “fulfillment of a vision, a dream that God gave to me.”
The project has been scaled down some over the 5-6 year planning stage. San Diego Union-Tribune writer Lori Weisberg’s described it, as “moving away from a more kitschy, Romanesque design to a much more modernist, campus-like setting, softened with meandering gardens, plazas and stone and glass low-rise buildings.”
When the project first appeared in front of the City Council back in September, it was turned down over questions and issues about the potential for increased traffic congestion. According to city planners the project would add little more traffic to the area than what already exists currently.
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.
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.
Councilman Scott Sherman, who represents Mission Valley, cited religious freedom as he urged his council colleagues to support the Cerullo project:
“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. 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.”
Councilwoman Lorie Zapf questioned the traffic concerns raised by project critics, suggesting it was the religious nature of the development that was in fact fueling opposition. “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.
In the end, the Democrats voted against it because of the lack of the validity of the traffic estimates, but everyone agreed to continue discussion of the project on October 17.
But when Cerullo’s project did come back on the October 17, the Council passed the plan 7 to 2 — with Councilmembers Chris Ward and Georgette Gomez dissenting.
Opposition to the project came mainly from San Diego’s gay and lesbian community. Rebekah Hook-Held of The San Diego LGBT Community Center told the council that traffic and noise were the real concerns:
“This is proposed to be built in the already impacted Mission Valley area. This contains too many negative impacts to this area. It’s bad for Mission Valley, bad for the (nearby) neighborhoods in Hillcrest and Mission Hills and it’s bad for San Diego.”
Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, head of San Diego Democrats for Equality, said his group believes the city should be focused on building more housing, not tourist attractions and convention centers.
Weisberg acknowledged the tension at the hearing:
Underlying the debate, though, has been a sense of uneasiness from some, mostly unspoken, about the Legacy International Center’s religious theming and Cerullo’s evangelical teachings. Both at the beginning of the hearing and also before the vote was taken, the City Attorney’s office warned the council that it could not take into account the religious nature of the project in its vote.
Several local religious leaders turned out to praise both the development and Cerullo, while some members of the LGBTQ community voiced their strong opposition but emphasized that their concerns were rooted solely in fears about increased traffic.
This project has been on the radar of some observers. Just about exactly three years ago, I described some of the major and minor development projects coming to Mission Valley – that if all were built, would further destroy the once-lush river plain. The Cerullo project was one of the minor projects:
If you want to destroy Mission Valley, what’s coming down the development pipeline will surely do it for you. There are four massive residential and commercial projects and another giant handful of minor ones – all in various stages of blueprints, planning and construction – heading for this landmark river canyon. If all are built – the total impact would permanently damage Mission Valley to the point where the Valley that we now know would no longer be there.
Who Is Morris Cerullo?
Ken Williams of the Mission Valley News wrote about Morris Cerullo:
He was born to Russian Jewish and Italian parents on Oct. 2, 1931 in Passaic, New Jersey. He was orphaned at age 2 when his parents died in a car crash, and sent to an Orthodox Jewish orphanage. But he became a Christian during his teenage years, eventually embracing the Pentecostal faith and becoming ordained in the early 1950s by the Assemblies of God. He is the founder of the Morris Cerullo World Evangelism as well as the Morris Cerullo Schools of Ministry.
Cerullo made a big splash in 1990 when he bought the assets of televangelist Jim Bakker’s bankrupt ministry, PTL. Among those assets, the bankruptcy court approved Cerullo’s $7 million offer to buy PTL’s cable TV operation, The Inspiration Network, and which has since been spun into a new entity called The Inspiration Networks. Cerullo’s son, David, is president and CEO of that company, which is based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Throughout his pastoral career, Cerullo has been dogged by controversies. His Schools of Ministry have been set up in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America to convert the natives to his brand of Christianity. His claims of being a faith healer and miracle worker have come into dispute, particularly in the United Kingdom where a BBC documentary told the story of a woman who believed Cerullo healed her of epilepsy, so she stopped taking her medication and died.
For more on Cerullo and the controversies that follow him, see this.
So, San Diegans can now look forward to a more-impacted Mission Valley as well as having a whole new tourism platform based on a televangelist extremist visions. Maybe Cerullo’s Legacy Center will join the ranks of El Cajon’s “Creation & Earth History Museum” that gives tours of its literal 6-day creation exhibit.