Walgreens' future neighbors sense runaround

They thought an extra parking lot was a done deal. Now that it isn't, Lakewood residents want to hear why.

Published January 19, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Residents surrounding a Walgreens coming to 54th Avenue S near 31st Street thought they had a deal going back to 2002. In return for not contesting the new store, neighbors expected the developer to put in an extra parking lot.

That deal appears dead, even though the store will open this summer. Neighbors will meet Tuesday to go over their history with the project and ponder the future.

Some are wondering out loud if the store is backing out of an agreement. But evidence indicates that it was the city, not the store, that nixed the parking lot neighbors sought.

"We just want answers, and we're not getting answers," said Milford Strong, president of the Lakewood Civic Association.

Neighbors and city officials met in early January to resolve issues such as the parking lot, which residents felt might be slipping away from them. When they meet again on Tuesday, a Walgreens representative has expressed interest in attending.

At this same location, the neighborhood repelled a Winn-Dixie in 1997, a Wal-Mart Supercenter in 1998, and the first proposal by Walgreens in 2001. Residents agreed not to fight the project now under construction just east of the Wachovia bank at 3095 54th Ave. S on two conditions.

First, builders would install a slow-down lane on the extreme right side of 54th Avenue S as it approaches 31st Street from the east. Second, the store would build an accessory parking lot on property owned by Bethel Community Baptist Church, at 2901 54th Ave. S. The church would grant an easement to the city, allowing patrons of the 31st Street Sports Complex to use the lot.

Cars flood the south and east perimeters of the complex on weekends, often parking on the grass. Neighbors wanted compensation for the additional traffic a large drugstore would bring, both in the deceleration lane and the parking lot.

"Those were the two understandings," said David Zachem of Lakewood Civic.

The deceleration lane will go in as planned, said Owen Ewing, a vice president for Paradise Development Group, which is building the Walgreens. The extra parking lot will not.

"It was not our decision," Ewing said. "We did everything we were supposed to do and committed to do."

For about a year, an agreement between the developer and the city had been proposed but not formally accepted, Ewing said. The terms called for Walgreens to create extra parking spaces in the northwest corner of the parcel, across the street from the public sports complex, whose patrons would be free to park there. So would worshipers attending Sunday services at Bethel, for whom the developer is building a back road from 31st Street. The city would maintain the space, provide lighting and assume liability for any accidents or mishaps.

"It's only common sense that the city should assume some responsibility," Ewing said.

The city viewed the matter differently and sent the developer a letter dated Nov. 18, 2004, from attorney Milton Galbraith, rejecting the accessory parking lot.

City attorney Mark Winn was not involved in the project but said the safety of pedestrians crossing 31st Street probably factored into the city's decision. "I think part of the concern was, if you put it across the street, then all of a sudden you have people walking across the street in an unregulated intersection."

Parks director Clarence Scott said his department did not learn of the proposed parking lot until late in the game. "We were not in favor of that offer" because it was not cost effective, Scott said.

Apart from concerns about costs, the city has already arranged with the School Board for overflow parking at Maximo Elementary School, about half a mile north on 31st Street.

Neighbors find themselves uncertain amid mixed signals. City Council member James Bennett said the parking lot came up at a January meeting he attended with Lakewood Civic residents and Development Services representatives. "I know that every single person there felt that this was a done deal," Bennett said.

Since learning of the apparent impasse on parking, Bennett said he has tried to contact Walgreens representatives with a message: "You don't want to start off your relationship with the neighborhood in this way."

Stacey Hughes lives just north of the development. She attended the meeting with the city's Development Services head, Julie Weston, and others, and now is not sure what to think. "We were told (the parking lot) was part of the project going in," Hughes said. "Now everybody is blaming someone else."

The store will open this summer, as early as June, spokeswoman Carol Hively said from the store's corporate headquarters in Deerfield, Ill. Hively spoke of "ongoing conversations" with the neighborhood and the city, and said that certain changes had occurred along the way.

"I guess the city had made some change in what they had originally wanted or intended, so we're still working with them. And that, I don't believe, has been resolved yet."

Bennett said he will attend the Lakewood Civic Association meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, at Lakewood United Church of Christ, 2601 54th Ave. S.

"I think what Walgreens needs to do is go to this meeting and just flat say what they are going to do and what they are not going to do."