ST. PETERSBURG — A proposed short-term housing and job training center for up to 50 homeless, drug and alcohol addicts and ex-offenders was rejected unanimously Wednesday by the Development Review Commission.
Despite equally unanimous praise for the Banyan Tree Project, which operates a smaller, but similar program in the city, the DRC denial was also recommended by city zoning officials and many area business and property owners.
The expanded project would have been located at 400 23rd St. S, where an existing vacant building would have been converted for short-term housing and training.
In addition to providing 50 beds, the building would also have included a dining area, counseling space and offices.
Clients would have lived on site to receive counseling, community service and recovery support sessions and job skill training.
"Our clients are people, too. The project is designed to help people get back to being productive members of society. This is about a second chance to rebuild their lives," said Dr. J. Carl Devine, the program's executive director.
The property previously was the site of a boat repair and manufacturing business.
The surrounding area is primarily industrial and has been gradually converting to an arts-related district.
City officials recommended against the project, saying the proposal's residential component would not be "consistent" with the surrounding Dome Industrial Park Community Redevelopment Area.
Herb Schluderberg, a chaplain at the Pinellas County jail, urged the project's approval, saying it would reduce the risk of crime in the city.
"Before, I was a drain on society, and now have become a productive citizen and an asset to society," said Joe Landry, a former client at Banyan Tree, who said the program helped him remain sober and he is now enrolled in college.
But area business and property owners were not swayed.
"I made a considerable investment in this neighborhood and am trying to invite artists to come see this area, to see what St. Petersburg is all about. This project would have detrimental impact," said glass gallery owner Duncan McClellan.
Eric Higgs, president of LumaStream, said if the project were approved, he would be forced to move his business out of the area.
"I apologize to you, but I am going to vote against this. I frankly don't feel you fit in the place you are trying to go," DRC Commissioner Ben Fisher said.
"When I look at the businesses that have invested in the area, I just think this is not a compatible use," Commissioner Ann Vickstrom said, while at the same time praising the service.
"Nobody wants this kind of facility in their back yard," said Commissioner Sharon Heal-Eichler. "But we can't ignore the fact that this is a service that is needed by our community."
Street and alley vacations approved
In other action, the DRC approved a series of street and alley vacations requested by the city and by the Pinellas County School Board, as well as a special exception and site plan for the construction of a Sam's Club at 1725 34th St. N.
Vacating one set of street and alleys will allow the city to continue negotiations to sell an industrial block bounded by 23rd and 25th streets S, Seventh Avenue S and the I-275 right-of-way.
Other street and alley vacations granted to the School Board will allow consolidation of properties surrounding Riviera Middle School and Melrose Elementary School. There are no immediate plans to redevelop the school sites.