Trouble at the temple

Belltown's poor will miss the ministry provided by Bethel Temple.

BUNDLED UP, Rick Spadlin pulls open Bethel Temple's glass door and steps in from the cold. He's greeted by a rush of heat—much welcomed after spending last night sleeping in his van. Overhead, the church reader board advises Spadlin and other Sunday morning visitors, "When you check your real assets, count all the things money can't buy."

For the Belltown temple's mostly poor and sometimes homeless congregation, those assets no longer include their church building. Originally an ornate public swimming hall called the Crystal Pool, filled with heated salt water pumped from Elliott Bay, the building has for 50-plus years functioned as a gymnasium-sized church sanctuary, dining hall, and offices. Now the two-story temple at the corner of Second and Lenora has been sold to make way for a planned 24-story office/residential tower.

The project has drawn the rage of wealthy neighbors facing loss of their condo views and the concern of preservationists hoping to save at least the building's 1915 Italian Renaissance-style terra cotta exterior.

Hardly a word of protest has been spoken over loss of the street people's church that provides prayer, food, and clothing to the needy. Church officials say they can't pass up the sale offer, estimated to be at least $3 million, which can be used to expand Bethel's mission. But the church will likely relocate away from the gentrified downtown neighborhood, and the remainder of the building's history be carted to the dump. Like recent cutbacks at the state job center across the street, closure will add to the erosion of social services for local have-nots.

"I didn't know we're closing. I am very sorry to hear that," Spadlin, 42, says politely about his church.

Unemployed after returning from a temporary job in Denver, he looks forward to the free coffee, juice, and rolls at a nearby table this morning. Several dozen other worshippers are scattered about the airy sanctuary, which includes original tiered seating rising to the once-domed former natatorium ceiling. A handful of Pentecostal worshippers has gathered next to the altar—a flowing stage lined with microphones, tambourines, and boxes of Kleenex (overhead hang the flags of 23 nations, befitting the church's original missionary aspiration and its multiethnic 200-member congregation). The group of parishioners, black and white, have wrapped their arms together, moaning. A woman calls out "We love you, Jesus"; the others begin crying.

"We don't know where we're going to relocate," Pastor Linda McMechan says. Natty in a dark suit, she's a little nervous today. Senior Pastor Dan Peterson is sick, so McMechan will lead the morning gospel lesson with help from his wife, Lavonne. "This is the area God has called us to minister. We'd really like to stay around here," McMechan says. Peterson agrees.

"But we haven't gotten that far" in picking a new place, she says. "There are still some issues for the new owners to resolve."

That would include, according to neighborhood complaints filed with the city's Department of Design, Construction, and Land Use (DCLU), solving questions about the height and bulk of the new high-rise building as well as noise, glare, and traffic congestion.

Condo residents on Third and First avenues object to the new tower poking into their east and west vistas, blocking their sea and mountain views just as some of their own newer high-rise buildings blocked views in the never-ending game of Belltown/Regrade one-upmanship. (Already dense with new condos, the area has a half-dozen more high-rise projects on the drawing board.)

That has made the fight over the poor folks' church a battle among the wealthy. On one side is Bellevue developer Murray Franklin Inc. On the other is the Belltown Residents Association, which includes Dr. Allen Wyler, director of neurosurgery at Swedish Hospital and president of Pacific Towers condominiums a block away on First Avenue. He says the upscale Belltown neighborhood is already so saturated that another building threatens "the quality of living for existing downtown residents." Attorney D. Wayne Gittinger, who lives in a First Avenue condo, says the new building would "go a long way toward converting Belltown into another Manhattan." Former University of Washington President William Gerberding, also a First Avenue condo owner, calls the new high-rise "an intrusion into an increasingly civilized neighborhood . . . and it's ugly."

The 2033 Second Avenue Building project has city approval but faces a challenge hearing next month; if a city examiner gives the thumbs-up, demolition and construction could soon follow. Developers have offered to make adjustments, offering setbacks and scaling down original tower plans, to please detractors.

Preservationists failed to obtain historic landmark status for the building (the civic swimming pool was closed and removed along with 350 dressing rooms more than 60 years ago). But the exterior facing that features carved mermaids and arched windows designed by famed theater architect B. Marcus Priteca may be saved and re- installed on the new tower.

Only a ripple of disagreement has surfaced over the church sale. "Pastor Offler, our founder, purchased Bethel Temple for $60,000," says one dissenter, a woman who has attended the temple since 1973. "His contract gave each member an inch of property. Bethel was owned by its members," but no longer. "It leaves me utterly appalled," she says of the sale.

Spadlin pats his Bible and says he'll trust faith to provide a happy ending for his temple. "All you've got to do is believe, confess, and repent," he says with a smile. The church has a reputation for being upbeat, an attitude reflected by its pithy reader board slogans (such as "Forbidden fruit creates many jams"). Likewise, this morning's Bible class found a lighter side to a topic that might describe the doomed temple's own dilemma, good vs. evil. Pastor McMechan asked the gathering, "Why did God put Satan on the planet?" Near the back, one man looked up from his coffee and piped, "So we wouldn't be bored?"

"Good answer!" said McMechan as the laughter rolled.

 
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