Carrabba's loses neighbors' esteem
Both restaurant and the city are drawing criticism from those living nearby.
By PAUL SWIDER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 23, 2007
St. Petersburg- The Sunken Gardens complex on Fourth Street N has become a hub of activity since voters approved its purchase and the city fixed it up.
But, neighbors say, the city has not followed through on promises to safeguard their neighborhood and at least one of the tenants is an ongoing problem.
"The city is leaning over backwards for Carrabba's," said neighbor Julia Brazier, who has led the charge against the Italian-themed restaurant she says is harming the neighborhood. "Somewhere there is undue influence. This particular tenant feels it doesn't have to obey the rules."
Brazier and others protested five years ago when the city approved the plan to bring Carrabba's and other tenants to the tourist attraction. Neighbors hired an attorney and appealed the plan's approval to the City Council but dropped the appeal when they got guarantees the complex would not create parking, traffic, garbage and other problems.
But Brazier says Carrabba's has not kept its pledges and the city has not pressed the restaurant to comply. She faults the restaurant for allowing its delivery trucks to traverse neighborhood streets, for not keeping its loading area free of garbage and vermin, and for overloading streets with illegally parked cars. She says complaints to the restaurant are met with defiance as management says city officials eat at Carrabba's so the restaurant is immune from punishment.
"I don't believe the city operates that way," said Virginia Littrell, a nearby resident who has seen the problems but was also on the City Council when the deal was approved.
"I do believe the manager tells people he doesn't have to comply because elected officials and staff frequent the place," she said.
Neither Carrabba's management nor representatives from its corporate offices responded to neighbors' accusations.
The city bought the dilapidated Sunken Gardens for $2.26-million in 1999 and spent another $2.7-million to refurbish its exterior. City staff manage the gardens themselves and act as landlord for the rest of the property, which now also includes a Cold Stone Creamery ice cream shop and Great Explorations Children's Museum.
Carrabba's had been in talks with the city for months before it signed a lease in 2002 that included the restaurant's spending $1.4-million to renovate its portion of the interior of the building. For that and because the city was trying to revive the property, Carrabba's got a lease that pays the city $10 per square foot on a street that now fetches three times that for similar space.
"They got a very favorable square-footage contract," Littrell said. "I think they should help out a little and be a good neighbor to try to keep that location."
The property falls under the supervision of the city's enterprise facilities, now overseen by Clay Smith, who in March became assistant director. Smith said he's heard the complaints and doesn't disagree with them.
"The trash area is an eyesore, they're probably correct about that," he said of the service entrances on 20th Avenue N. "If I was a neighbor, I can't say I wouldn't do the same thing."
Smith said he's now made it part of the staff's daily routine to check the back of the house, which faces a store and a warehouse, not homes. Smith's staff says there really isn't much of a problem.
"If there's a complaint, they fix it up the same day, if not in a couple hours," said Lauren Kleinfeld, the city's manager of Sunken Gardens. "We have very infrequent problems, not even monthly, and we have a great relationship with Carrabba's."
Trucks do sometimes run down nearby streets, Kleinfeld said, when new drivers don't know better, but the restaurant takes care of the problem.
Parking is hard to blame on any one tenant, but some of the complaints come from the restaurant's legal use of a loading zone.
Kleinfeld said the only complaints she hears from neighbors come from Brazier, but others say it's not a one-woman issue.
"I don't believe it's fair to say it's not a big deal," said Mary Alice Lange, the president of the Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association, which has yet to take an official position on the matter. "If you lived there, it would be a big deal to you, too."
City Council member Leslie Curran, who represents the district, said she's heard nothing of the issue from a neighborhood not shy to speak up when there's a problem.
She said some of the difficulty arises from the conundrum of improvements that benefit a neighborhood but also later burden it.
"We want to redevelop, but we have to be very careful how we do that," she said. "It's a double-edged sword."
Paul Swider can be reached at email@example.com or 892-2271.