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ST. PETERSBURG -- Crescent Lake neighbors will weigh in Saturday on whether to join their president in a lawsuit against an embattled motel.
The city's Nuisance Abatement Board on Dec. 20 closed 23 rooms of the Empress Motel for six months, but owner Manji Jethwa successfully appealed a week later to stay the order.
The board's action came after testimony from police officers that the motel, at 1503 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. N, had become a haven for prostitutes and their clients, drug users and drug sellers.
Now a neighbor has joined the fray. Clifford Holensworth, president of the Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association, is suing the motel and Jethwa for unspecified damages. He said he will ask neighbors for approval in bringing the association's name in as the plaintiff.
Jethwa returned to the board Wednesday, where members had expected to see a plan on curtailing illegal activities on his property. Instead, his attorney asked for more time so that Jethwa could meet with police, neighbors and city officials. The board granted an extension of 1 p.m. Jan. 23. It can either accept or reject Jethwa's plan at that time.
The fate of Jethwa's business could hang in the balance. Jethwa bought the Empress in November 2001 for $995,000. Although the board's original order did not involve 10 apartment units on the property, Jethwa won the stay in December by arguing that a six-month closure would wipe him out.
Neighbors say they have a stake, too. At Wednesday's Nuisance Abatement Board hearing, Ingrid Comberg of the MLK Business District told members, "I think we have been patient enough. Stalling and stalling and stalling is not fair to the innocent people who live around there."
Attorney Prineet Sharma, who represents Jethwa, offered members a glimpse of the plan he said will be ready Jan. 23. It says that Jethwa and his wife, Joshna, will require photo identification for all guests; hire security guards; train security video cameras on the courtyard and premises 24 hours a day; limit motel rooms to nightly rentals; and require guests to sign a 10-point "conditions of room rental" agreement.
Sharma said he would be willing to meet with the MLK Business District, which has expressed interest in joining Holensworth's lawsuit. "The goal of the Empress is to be a good neighbor," Sharma said. "So we're willing to talk. If they're suing us, that becomes more difficult."
Attorney Darryl Rouson has already sued other motels in St. Petersburg under public nuisance statutes, and recently settled with the Park Motel on 6638 Fourth St. N on behalf of the Fossil Park Neighborhood Association.
Holensworth, 41, retained Rouson after the Nuisance Abatement Board issued its order to close down part of the Empress.
"We can't allow this to happen, or it will happen elsewhere in the city," Holensworth said.
Crescent Lake meets at 9 a.m. Saturday at Panera Bread, 1908 Fourth St. N.
A topic at meetings of late: whether to meet as often. Theresa McEachern of Harbordale and Bob Larson of Mobel Americana both demurred when asked if their associations would hold January meetings, which would normally come next week. McEachern said the association is considering scaling back to bimonthly or quarterly meetings, as is Mobel Americana.
Five Points recently dropped its monthly format in favor of March and November meetings. And the Fourth Street Business Association will switch from monthly to meetings every other month. Members will look into e-mail groups to bring up issues and remind other members of meeting dates or changes.
McEachern said Harbordale will look into a new format in an attempt to break up a pattern: "It's always the same handful of people doing everything."
Cutting back worked well in Magnolia Heights, where divisiveness threatened to make the association unworkable. Residents cut back to quarterly meetings in January 2001.
Attendance increased at the quarterly meetings, said president Michael Barnett. The association has since published three issues of its own newsletter, which has gone from four pages to six.
"It was a smart move," Barnett said of going quarterly. "I didn't realize how smart until the people showed up."
MLK Business District president Mark Taber would like some action from the city on two-way traffic for part of Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street. While this is about as newsworthy as saying that the sun has risen, Taber said he did get positive feedback from city officials, including the mayor, in November. Taber said he was pushing for "a bone," returning a section from Ninth Avenue N to Fifth Avenue N to two-way traffic. Advocates have proposed bringing two-way traffic from Ninth Avenue N to Ninth Avenue S, which Taber said he favors as well.
At Wednesday's meeting at the Chatterbox Restaurant, Taber said he had not heard anything more from the city, which has paid nearly $100,000 to fund two feasibility studies on bringing sections of one-way streets to two-way.
Dennis Bender, who bought the Chatterbox more than a year ago, said business owners he has talked to favor two-way traffic, which would slow speeds and increase accessibility to businesses.
"There's nobody who doesn't want it," said Bender, 63.
But any talk of two-way traffic will have to wait until there is money in the budget, City Council member Jay Lasita said.
"The administration is very much in a batten-down-the-hatches mode when it comes to spending money in a new administration," said Lasita, who supports two-way traffic along the street.