Megachurch in old multiplex theater? University Place wants time to think about it

After learning a large church might be interested in the former Galaxy Narrows Theater on the eastern border of University Place, the City Council voted 5 to 2 Monday night to approve a moratorium preventing large religious groups from locating in commercial zones.

The six-month emergency moratorium gives the council time to decide whether to let religious assemblies with at least 250 people per service use building space intended for a revenue-generating business.

“We have very limited commercial space,” University Place City Attorney Steve Victor explained in an interview Monday. “Part of the City Council’s priority is economic development, specifically revenue-generating commercial activities.”

City planning staff fielded a phone call two weeks ago inquiring about possibly converting the vacant multiplex on Mildred Street into a church. No formal application has been filed with the city.

It’s unclear how serious the inquiry was. A Realtor called the city asking whether a church with 1,400 members could go there, according to David Swindale, the city’s development services director. The name of the church was not given.

The eight-screen theater at 2208 Mildred St. W. closed in early 2013, three decades after it opened as an AMC theater.

City code allows churches with up to 250 people per service in commercial zones only when a conditional-use permit is obtained.

The moratorium shouldn’t be seen as an attempt to prevent religious groups from coming to the city of 32,000 people, Victor said. But with larger churches comes the potential for conflict.

If a church with several hundred members moved into that space, it could cause competition for parking. That’s one of the reasons city staff cited for supporting the moratorium.

The City Council hopes to see more commercial redevelopment along the Mildred corridor, as well as the additional tax revenues such development would generate.

Councilman Javier Figueroa questioned whether a church with 1,400 members would bring traffic the retail corridor needs to be active seven days a week. The city is hungry for retail growth in its commercial area, he said.

“If we continue to cut that off at the ankles, we’re not going to make it,” Figueroa said.

The 9-acre Narrows Plaza shopping complex where the theater building is located is one of the city’s largest remaining commercial zones that could be redeveloped. It is anchored by the Narrows Plaza Bowl bowling alley.

Councilman Ken Grassi and Mayor Denise McCluskey voted against the moratorium.

Grassi said he believes a large church would bring people to the area during the week, outside traditional Sunday service times. McCluskey said she wants the property owners to be able to develop the site as they see fit.

The moratorium takes effect immediately and applies to all commercial zones in the city. Because it was declared an emergency, the city is required to hold a public hearing in the next 60 days. A date has not been set.