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Grand Central culture clash

The upwardly mobile, the downtrodden co-exist.St. Petersburg

By CRISTINA SILVA, Times Staff Writer
Published August 8, 2007

Some neighborhood advocates say they see the need for places like Beacon House, a men's shelter on Central Avenue, but they don't want any more such nonprofit groups moving in.
[Willie J. Allen Jr. | Times]
[Lara Cerri | Times (2005)]
The Grand Central District hosts St. Pete Pride, the gay pride festival that celebrates diversity. Diversity of people and businesses is the ongoing area goal, says City Council member Jeff Danner.

Bradley Erickson had high hopes when he and his wife opened their stained glass store last year in the heart of the Grand Central District, supposedly the city's next "it" neighborhood.

Instead, he found the occasional homeless person hanging out near the front of his shop, scaring off clients and the investors he thought would move in and continue to improve the neighborhood.

"It is discouraging," said Erickson, who was recently named president of the Grand Central District Association. "It is becoming apparent that we have a disproportionate number of shelters and shelter beds in the area, and that doesn't lend itself to a vibrant business environment, which is exactly what the Grand Central District is supposed to grow into."

His is a common complaint these days in the Grand Central District and adjoining Historic Kenwood, where business owners and residents want the city to limit additional nonprofits.

Social services agencies and shelters argue that they were in Grand Central first.

The conflict is typical of problems other up-and-coming neighborhoods will likely face as they gentrify, city officials said. Similar issues involving traditional and newer residents have appeared in Bartlett Park, downtown St. Petersburg and other areas.

City Council member Jeff Danner, who represents the greater Kenwood area, said business owners do not want to chase out the social services agencies already there, but do want to discourage others from moving in.

"This isn't a 'not in my back yard' thing. This is a 'not any more in my back yard,' " he said. "We understand that these are well-run agencies that are a necessary part of the city; we just feel that at this point we have done our fair share of hosting these agencies in our district."

Heads of the nonprofits say they have tried to be good neighbors and that they also care about the neighborhood's future.

"We are part of the solution, not part of the problem," said Jane Egbert, executive director of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, which runs the Beacon House shelter on Central Avenue.

"Good, strong neighborhoods include areas like Central Avenue and all the good that is happening there, as well as places for the homeless to sleep so that they aren't sleeping in the alleyway or using the bathroom in the alleyway."

City codes dictate that social services agencies must be at least 1,200 feet from one another to ensure that no one neighborhood is overwhelmed with shelters and soup kitchens. The agencies there now meet the requirement.

Zoning in Grand Central already prohibits auto repairs shops and industrial services. These businesses do not fit in with the area's goal of becoming an attractive, walkable shopping district, said city planner Gary Jones.

For better or worse, the debate over Grand Central's future illustrates how far the area - from First Avenue N to First Avenue S and from 17th to 31st streets - has come in the past decade.

Then, prostitutes and drug users prowled the streets. More than 80 percent of the buildings were vacant, and absentee landlords had no interest in making repairs.

Slowly, young families, artsy types and gays priced out of downtown moved into Historic Kenwood and cleaned up. They wanted places to shop and eat close to home, so they turned to Central Avenue to build what they wanted.

In time, progress arrived in the form of a tanning salon, art galleries and European-style coffee shops. Historic Kenwood was named one of the top 10 places to live by Cottage Living magazine in 2006. Last year, 40 businesses opened in the area, and establishments like Beak's Old Florida, a quirky, popular watering hole, have come to define the new Grand Central District.

Residents say they have paid their dues and deserve to see their investments flourish.

But the city's ever-growing homeless population has ensured that the social services agencies have also continued to thrive.

The Free Clinic's Beacon House is considering adding 10 beds to its 30-bed shelter for men.

In the past six years, Boley Centers, in Historic Kenwood, opened 36 affordable housing units in the area. The nonprofit is also one of the area's largest employers, with 270 employees.

Gary MacMath, executive director of Boley Centers, said the low-income people he helps have a constitutional right to live there.

"They cannot dictate the market based on what their community plans are," he said. "I think that's their problem, not ours."

Danner said the issue in Grand Central is not one of class or race.

"The whole idea is to have a diverse mix of residents and businesses," he said. "We would also complain if all the businesses were being bought up by lawyers and there was no room for restaurants because it would make it difficult to have that diversity we want."

Yet, as fiercely as social services agencies defend their right to remain where they are, one factor beyond their control might prevent the expansion of agencies or the arrival of new ones.

"We bought the land here when it was affordable, and it is not affordable anymore," MacMath said.

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or

[Last modified August 7, 2007, 23:53:37]

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