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CHICAGO-A 205,000-sf “mega-church” that could be turned into a basketball arena and a 65,000-sf indoor track and ice arena will be built on 22.65 acres northwest of the Bishop Ford Expressway and 115th Street interchange, according to a $42-million proposal recommended for approval by the plan commission recently. The building will be the largest indoor venue in the city besides the United Center, and could be used to host Illinois High School Association basketball tournaments when not in use by its main tenant, Illinois State Sen. and Rev. James T. Meeks’ Salem Baptist Church.

The plans head to the city council despite pleas from neighboring homeowners to deny the Pullman Community Center Development Corp.’s plans or delay action until alternate sites to the north and south of the long-vacant brownfield acreage could be considered.

Meeks says his congregation has grown to 17,000 members, including 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale, requiring him to perform four weekend services at his current location at 11800 S. Indiana Ave. “I’ve been doing four weekend services for eight years, and I’m not getting any younger,” says Meeks, hoping to cut back to two services in a larger house of worship.

Rather than a 7,000-seat church that would be used on weekends, the congregation is embarking on ambitious plans for a community center, which could be used for plays, concerts, theater groups as well as basketball games, Meeks says. “We decided to build a community center and not just a church facility,” he adds.

Having acquired the land three years ago, the church is attempting to raise about $10 million in equity through donations, and has six years to get started on the plan. After that, zoning would revert back to M3-3.

Before being abandoned more than 20 years ago, the land was used by the Pullman Rail Car Co. as a manufacturing plant. While the project would remediate a contaminated site, it would not generate property tax revenue in an economically depressed area, opponents claim, because of the church’s tax-exempt status.

Opponents also failed to convince the plan commission the project is more of a public amusement and entertainment venue rather than a church. Those uses cannot be within 125 feet of R-1, R-2 and R-3 zoning districts.

Considered the heir apparent to replace Jesse Jackson as the head of Operation PUSH eventually , Meeks says the Chicago Public Schools and Roman Catholic archdiocese–nearby Mount Carmel High School has a hockey team–are among those encouraging him to build the facility. “It seems everyone has jumped on board,” he says.

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