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    Food pantry's building plans crumble

    Neighborhood opposition and parking are two concerns. A city board denies an application to put a two-story building on a vacant lot downtown.

    By JENNIFER FARRELL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 17, 2003


    CLEARWATER -- After finding what it hoped would be a permanent home, the Religious Community Services Inc. Food Pantry soon could be out in the street.

    On Tuesday, the city's Community Development Board denied the organization's application to build a two-story building downtown on a vacant lot at the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Hart Street. Bitter opposition from the neighborhood and questions about adequate room for parking preceded the board's 5-2 vote. Ed Hooper and John Doran opposed the denial.

    On Wednesday, food pantry director Jamia Austin said the ruling could force the pantry to shut its doors.

    "If this service goes away," she said, "I don't know what Clearwater would do."

    RCS has a contract on the vacant acre at 405 Hart St., roughly 1 mile from its current location at 700 Druid Road. The Hart Street site is ideal, pantry officials said, because it is near bus lines and clients. It's also close to other social service organizations such as the Health Department and the Turley Family Health Center.

    Problem is, the sales contract -- and the federal grant expected to pay for the building -- are contingent on city approvals, said Austin.

    Without them, the pantry has nowhere to go. The current location is for sale, and the pantry leases the building month-to-month.

    "If it gets sold," said Austin, "I don't know if we'll be able to stay."

    The pantry moved to its Druid location early last year after the city decided to buy its longtime home on Ewing Avenue S from the Clearwater Housing Authority to make room for a new retention pond downtown.

    Plans for the new site included a 10,000-square-foot metal building, with a stucco facade and administrative offices upstairs. City staffers recommended approval.

    But neighbors drafted a petition opposing the move.

    Michelle King, president of Drew and Plaza Park Neighborhood Association, said Wednesday that a food pantry is the last thing the area needs.

    "Those are the types of things we're trying to get out of the neighborhood to help clean it up," she said. "I think there are other neighborhoods that would be much more suited to take that sort of thing."

    King said residents have worked hard to improve the area, which, she said, has seen an increase in homelessness. The food pantry would only exacerbate the problem, King said.

    "It's certainly not going to help our neighborhood," she said. "I think it was the cheap way out for the city, and it's not fair to us."

    Austin said Wednesday that the pantry has asked a nearby church to share parking and plans to appeal the board's ruling.

    The organization has two options, according to City Planning Director Cyndi Tarapani. Administrators could appeal the decision to a hearing officer or they could revise their application and ask the board to reconsider it.

    City officials, meanwhile, will work to resolve the parking concerns.

    "I'm really focused on seeing if we can work through the parking issues," said City Manager Bill Horne. "Finding another location is going to be difficult."

    Austin said the more nettlesome problem will be changing neighborhood perceptions. She said concerns about attracting homeless people are way off base.

    "I just think that they were being very judgmental," she said. "Our target people are working people, people who are not making enough money to feed their families and pay their bills."

    -- Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrell@sptimes.com ">farrell@sptimes.com .

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