Church Abandons Tenderloin Mission

Source: San Francisco Chronicle
Date: November 2, 2001

Talk about mistiming the real estate market.

Only weeks after opening an Ikea-furnished, dot-commy new branch in San Francisco's South of Market area just as the neighborhood once again goes to seed, the Church of Scientology has quietly placed its downtown headquarters up for sale amid a devastating slump in property prices.

"Well, Scientologists tend to be optimists," said church spokesman Jeff Quiros. "We believe that you make your own life."

Be that as it may, you have to wonder about their business savvy, at least as far as real estate goes. The new SoMa branch, or "mission" in church parlance, is a fine case in point.

It came about as a result of actress (and Scientologist) Jenna Elfman taking an interest in emulating actress-Scientologist pal Kirstie Alley, who led the way in opening a mission in her hometown of Wichita, Kan.

Elfman, who lives in Los Angeles but whose TV show, "Dharma and Greg," is set in San Francisco, began shopping around more than a year ago for a suitable location in the city. She eventually settled on a vacant site nestled between a couple of garment factories at 966 Mission St., near Sixth.

Scientologists-in-the-know tell me that Elfman specifically wanted to create a space that would reflect the young and fresh energy of the area, which she apparently thought remained a mecca for young and fresh dot-com entrepreneurs.

She couldn't have been more wrong. Yet even as the dot-coms imploded, Elfman pushed ahead with efforts to lease the 7,300-square-foot Mission Street property and appoint it with snazzy furniture and a tech-industrial sensibility. A children's center and activity room were built downstairs, complete with a ballet bar along full-length mirrors (Elfman is herself a dancer).

The only problem: No one ever visits, at least not that I can see. The neighborhood, as those who actually live here know, is not the sort of place that people naturally associate with spiritual growth.

Besides, if a Scientologist wants to brave a halfway rough neighborhood, the church's Bay Area headquarters is just a couple of blocks away at Seventh and McAllister, and the people there are a whole lot more approachable than their wary colleagues at the SoMa facility.

On the other hand, they already know at the headquarters what the SoMa crew has yet to grasp: Scientology, whatever else it may be, is not a popular pursuit among the lower classes. It's no coincidence that this is the sort of be-your-own-man belief that attracts the likes of John Travolta and Tom Cruise.

The Tenderloin headquarters building is thus up for sale, and the church is shopping around for more spacious, affluent digs in the Financial District.

Insiders say they hope to vacate the premises by the beginning of next year. That is, if sufficient funds can be raised for a ritzier home. No one thinks the current HQ will sell in a timely fashion.

"We bought that building back in 1978," Quiros said. "We always believed that we could make it in any neighborhood."

It took the church headquarters more than two decades to learn this isn't true. Anyone want to bet that the SoMa mission lasts nowhere near as long?