Church’s interest a concern
San Francisco’s North Beach, the city’s bohemian quarter, has said “no” to chain stores through zoning laws to preserve the quirky, colorful character found in its cafes, clothing shops, bookstores and nightclubs.
Now, some merchants and the supervisor whose district includes North Beach are eyeing a new land-use restriction to block a real estate acquisition being considered by the Church of Scientology, whose religious marketing practices strike some as inconsistent with the neighborhood’s live-and-let-live ways.
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“I think it is a real shame for North Beach,” said Martha Egan, who runs a boutique on the ground floor of the Colombo Building at 1 Columbus Ave., which the church has inquired about purchasing.
“I have no problem with the idea of Scientology on its own,” said Egan, “but their method of proselytizing — it’s as bad as the Hare Krishnas at the airport, or worse.”
A little over two years ago, the church moved into and restored a building at the foot of North Beach on Montgomery Street. Apparent expansion plans have led it to inquire with City College, owner of the nearby Colombo Building at Columbus Avenue and Washington Street, about a possible purchase.
“We’ve gotten numerous inquiries, and since you’ve asked about the Church of Scientology, they were one,” said Peter Goldstein, vice chancellor of City College, which will put the building up for sale April 1.
But a deal with the church could be thwarted by legislation introduced this week by Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who is seeking to restrict use of the building by religious institutions, among other groups, as a means of preserving the neighborhood’s character.
Built in 1912, the Colombo Building historically has served as an office building with some ground-floor shops as tenants. It also was once home to Ramparts Magazine. Under legislation sponsored by Peskin in 2002, the Board of Supervisors designated the building a landmark.
Peskin said Wednesday he had heard from concerned tenants that the church was interested in buying the building and that church officials had toured the site. But Peskin said his ordinance, which would set a temporary moratorium on any use of the site by institutions such as schools or religious organizations, was not meant to single out the Church of Scientology.
“This legislation is intended to ensure the existing types of uses that have been in the Colombo Building for 100 years,” he said. Peskin is planning another piece of legislation that would permanently designate the building off-limits to churches, among other institutions.
Jeff Quiros, president of the church in San Francisco, disputed that church members had been anything but good neighbors in North Beach. “I would say we get about a 95 percent approval rating from our neighbors in this district,” he said. “They’re happy that we’re here. That’s what I’m hearing on the street.”
Quiros noted that the church restored the historic bank building it currently occupies when it moved there in 2003 and has an interest in acquiring the Colombo Building. “It’s considered a sister building to ours,” he added. “I think we’d be great owners of that building.”
Egan, the boutique owner, disagrees, saying church members have aggressively peddled their beliefs on the sidewalk, blocked the entrance of shops and entered other businesses in the Colombo Building in an impromptu tour of the property.
“They have come into my business and other businesses on the ground floor to look around in small groups,” she said. “I didn’t like it. Their presence in the past month has become aggressive.”
Founded by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology espouses the benefits of “religious technology,” which it claims can cure drug addiction, mental illness and other ailments, and has sought to discredit the practice of psychiatry. The church counts among its faithful many Hollywood actors, including Tom Cruise, who credited Scientology with curing his dyslexia.
Last year, a series of Chronicle stories detailed how the church had funded an anti-drug campaign taught in some California schools that exposed students to some Scientology beliefs without their knowledge. State school officials later urged the program be dropped, saying it offers unscientific and inaccurate information.
And more recently, Scientology became the center of attention at City Hall after Mayor Gavin Newsom acknowledged dating an actress who is a member of the church and accompanied her last month to a conference in Los Angeles sponsored by a group co-founded by the church that is dedicated to “investigating and exposing psychiatric violations of human rights.”
Quiros declined Wednesday to comment on Newsom’s attendance of the Los Angeles conference, calling a reporter’s question “one of the sillier things I’ve heard.”
Regarding the North Beach property, he said: “We have no bone to pick with Aaron Peskin — we have no bone to pick with our neighbors or the city. We’re simply interested in the building from a real estate perspective.”
Goldstein, the vice chancellor of City College, said no decision has been made about who should buy the Colombo Building. The school bought the property and an adjacent lot for $3.8 million in the 1990s and is selling the building now because it no longer needs it for a planned Chinatown campus.
“The college, of course, has tried to and will continue to try to be a good neighbor,” he added. “We’re interested in having the property under the control of an entity the public would look favorably on.”
Goldstein declined to say for what amount the school expects to sell the building.