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Six days after making a historic change to its proselytizing program, the LDS Church backed away Friday from hotly disputed plans to erect a high-rise to expand its Missionary Training Center near Brigham Young University in Provo.
"Church leaders have determined that, due to a number of complexities and concerns, we will not move forward with the nine-story building originally proposed," church spokesman Michael Purdy said in a news release. "Expansion of the MTC is necessary, but we are confident we can find a solution that builds upon the long-standing working relationship between the MTC, BYU, and the community at large."
That expansion may be more necessary now than ever after last weekend's announcement lowering the minimum age for full-time Mormon missionaries to 18 for men (down from 19) and 19 for women (down from 21) a move expected to swell the number of missionaries.
The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had proposed the nine-story MTC tower to replace five cramped classroom structures with antiquated plumbing and ventilation systems. The new building was expected to open in 2014 and appeared to meet existing zoning restrictions on height.
Friday's retreat was welcomed by residents of the adjoining Pleasant View neighborhood, who had argued the church was ramming the plan through without their blessing. Neighbors had alleged that the nine-story structure would have broken prior promises capping the height of MTC buildings.
Residents protested at a neighborhood gathering with LDS Church representatives, at Municipal Council meetings and on the streets, flying balloons at the same height as the planned high-rise.
Tensions came to a head in July, when an LDS stake president who oversees a number of Mormon congregations asked the neighbors to back church leaders in their MTC plan, which he labeled an ecclesiastical issue.
"This just says that when the right decision makers in Salt Lake become aware of the problem, the problem is addressed appropriately," neighbor LorieJohnson said Friday. "That was the problem. There was a communication breakdown."
Johnson and R. Paul Evans, the Pleasant View neighborhood chairman, said they have been assured by LDS officials that residents will be included in discussions on the MTC's future.
Evans said the neighborhood is willing to negotiate as it has since the plans for the building were announced.
"We will work with the MTC and with Provo as a neighborhood," Evans said, "and meet the growth needs that the MTC is going to have now and in its future."
For their part, LDS officials said they "look forward to further discussions as the process moves forward."
In general, Evans added, the neighborhood doesn't have any fears about a bigger MTC.
"Whatever that plan is that comes out, it will be something that everybody had a chance to work together on to make it best for all the people involved," Evans said. "And that was what was sought for in the beginning."
Provo Mayor John Curtis, who is vacationing in Idaho, commended the LDS Church's action.
"We appreciate the church working hard to find a solution to a difficult situation and we look forward to working with them as this unfolds," Curtis said in a statement sent by city spokeswoman Helen Anderson.
About 24,000 Mormon missionaries pass through the Provo training center every year to learn foreign languages and how to teach the LDS message before they embark on proselytizing stints in more than 120 countries across the globe.
There are more than a dozen other LDS missionary training centers in the world, but Provo's is the flagship facility, handling 80 percent of the load.
That load is expected to multiply in coming months and years as the lower age limits prompt more young Mormon men and, particularly, women to serve full-time missions.
How many more? Even top LDS leaders aren't sure. "The numbers of missionaries could increase dramatically," LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland has said.
To make room for the anticipated influx, church leaders already plan to reduce by a third the amount of time missionaries spend at training centers
Mormon missions by the numbers
58,000 » Number of full-time Mormon missionaries
24,000 » Number of missionaries at Provo MTC in a year
2,700 » Average number of missionaries at Provo's MTC at any one time
347 » Number of LDS missions worldwide
80 » Percentage of missionaries trained at Provo's MTC, the faith's largest
15 » Number of MTCs worldwide