It once stood as a symbol of St. Petersburg's reputation as a tourist mecca, a place where Northerners settled in for the winter reprieve. These days, the former Mari-Jean Hotel at 2349 Central Ave. is known by a different name and serves an entirely different function. It's now the Carden House, an assisted living facility where most of those who occupy its rooms are mentally ill. The facility is also the bane of neighbors. Last year, their complaints prompted Mayor Rick Baker and City Council member Jeff Danner to visit the faded three-story structure. For those who work and live in the Grand Central District and Historic Kenwood neighborhoods, the complaints are many.
They say Carden House is poorly run and that residents of the 60-bed ALF are allowed to roam the neighborhood rifling through trash bins and begging for money and food. Neighbors also say drug dealers peddle their wares on the property. Furthermore, nearby business owners say, the aggressive begging and erratic behavior of Carden House residents are scaring away potential customers.
"We want a better operation inside to quit affecting what is happening outside," said Jim Longstreth, president of the Grand Central District Association, whose boundaries are First Avenue N to First Avenue S and 16th to 31st streets.
Bob Jeffrey's Historic Kenwood property shares an alleyway with Carden House. He says he is privy to the comings and goings, screaming and yelling, Dumpster diving and begging.
"My biggest concern is to see how those people are treated,'' said Jeffrey, past president of the Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association.
"Just from observation, my guess is there are not enough people there to supervise them. I can see them begging for food out there all the time. You never actually see people being served food in the dining room. … When you see them on the street, they are dirty, they are walking around barefoot. It's just disheartening."
State records show the business is owned by Shrinathji Inc. and that Raghuvir Amin is an officer. Sean and Harry Amin, who are involved with the business, declined to be interviewed. Shrinathji Inc. bought Carden House for $1.4 million early in 2007.
"We were hoping that with the change of ownership, things would improve, but it's gotten worse," Longstreth said.
Danner, who represents the area, said he is concerned about the "huge amount of city resources'' going into police and fire calls at the facility.
His visit with the mayor was arranged, he said. The place was spotless and smelled of cleanser, he said. Citing privacy concerns, the owners showed their visitors unoccupied rooms where furniture was topped with doilies.
But Danner said he saw a different place when he arrived unannounced with a police officer who was responding to a call. Instead of doilies and furniture, the room he went into had three women sleeping on mats on the floor. There was no furniture.
"Their belongings were in laundry baskets and plastic garbage bags,'' Danner said.
On that occasion, said Danner, police had been called because of a dispute about a pillow. The resident who said her pillow was stolen told the officer that an employee had advised her to call police.
"It's a very expensive way for taxpayers to manage the facility,'' Danner said.
Danner and Longstreth say the property has had numerous code violations over the years.
"We just recently had to force the Carden House to demolish a dilapidated two-story structure on its compound because it was deteriorating,'' Longstreth said.
There are no active cases against the ALF now, said Todd Yost, director of codes compliance assistance.
Last week, Carden House passed its fire inspection. So far this year, the fire department has received 174 calls from the facility.
"Yes, that's a lot of calls, but it's 95 percent medical and when you have a typical ALF of that size and with that many occupants, you are bound to have that many calls. It's kind of what we have to do. We respond to any call for emergency help,'' said Lt. Joel Granata of St. Petersburg Fire Rescue.
Police records show 225 calls associated with the address through Dec. 11. They included missing persons and Baker Act calls and reports of battery and theft.
Additionally, Carden House residents have been arrested 32 times since the beginning of the year. Their alleged crimes have included aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, failure to register as a sexual offender, battery, theft, disorderly conduct, panhandling, trespassing, criminal mischief, urinating in public, intoxication, cocaine possession and assault.
Topping the list of arrests is Bonnie Nix, 60, a familiar face among downtown panhandlers. She has been arrested seven times this year, most recently on Dec. 7.
Longstreth says business owners and other Grand Central District residents are frustrated. Grand Central and adjoining Historic Kenwood have come a long way since decay that spanned the 1970s through early 1990s. The arrival of new, affluent residents in Kenwood during the late '90s spurred business development in the adjacent Grand Central District and brought growing prosperity to the area. Now Longstreth is worried that problems with Carden House and its residents could jeopardize the neighborhood's hard-earned progress.
Jamie Farquharson, co-owner of Beak's Old Florida, at 2451 Central Ave., said he has had his share of encounters with the ALF's clients. One recently rushed into his restaurant asking to call 911. The man said he was hungry.
"He said, 'They punish me and wouldn't let me have food,' '' Farquharson said. "I've not been on the inside, but the people from there that I've encountered seem to be having inhumane treatment. They mill around out front. If they had something constructive to do, I think it would be much more positive.''
A few businesses away, Pet Planet co-owner Harold Feathers said he installed a buzzer at the front door and keeps the back door bolted because of a steady stream of panhandlers and trash bin divers.
Last week, he said, "A lady came in and she couldn't speak and she had a note that said she lived at the Carden House and she was hungry and could I help.''
Despite the complaints, Carden House faces no current sanctions from the Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses the state's 36,000 health care facilities. According to state records, deficiencies cited since a November 2008 biennial inspection and follow-up visits through June have been corrected.
Carden House had been cited for deficiencies that included inadequate staff and training. Its recordkeeping also was poor. Specifically, the biennial inspection revealed that the facility kept no master list of residents getting mental health services and that it failed to maintain an up-to-date admission and discharge log of residents.
The state agency also cited the ALF for a lack of drinking water for the residents. Additionally, on the day of the biennial inspection, the report said, the facility did not have on hand the required three-day supply of nonperishable food.
It was shopping day, the cook said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wm[email protected] or (727) 892-2283.