TAMPA — If the waiter never hands you a check, is it still a restaurant?
For the Trinity Cafe and homeowners in Tampa's historic V.M. Ybor neighborhood, this is not an idle question.
For nearly 10 years, the nonprofit cafe has served more than 200 free lunches every weekday to the homeless, the down-and-out and the working poor from its space at the Salvation Army on N Florida Avenue.
Now, however, it proposes to move its operation to a building at N Nebraska and E 17th avenues.
The land is zoned commercial-general. Because Trinity's permit application is being reviewed the same way the city staff considers a restaurant, city rules do not require that it go before the City Council for approval or denial.
Alarmed, about 40 V.M. Ybor residents brought their concerns to the City Council on Thursday.
They said the cafe is no restaurant, but a soup kitchen, potentially with a line of hundreds out the door. They worry that it will bring vagrants who will hang around before and after lunch, litter, look for places to use the bathroom, vandalize their homes and worse.
"The property is immediately adjacent to single-family residences," V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Association president Kim Headland said.
"This relocation will have an impact on crime in our community, it will overburden (police) and it will negatively impact the quality of life," she said. "Most definitely, this will deter any positive redevelopment on the Nebraska corridor. It's simply not the same as a restaurant. The impact is just different."
Trinity paid $225,000 for the Nebraska Avenue property and has said it's working to raise another $350,000 to renovate the building that's there.
The charity looked for a property that had the right price, the right zoning and ready access to bus lines for its clients and volunteers.
"What we're trying to do is provide for the homeless," said Jeff Darrey, chairman of Trinity's board of directors. "We don't have control over our current circumstance where we're located, but we will in the new one."
In response, City Council members were sympathetic to residents but seemed at a loss at what to do.
Then someone looked at the city code's definition of a restaurant: "An establishment whose principal business is the preparation, serving and selling of food."
Trinity doesn't sell, so it couldn't be a restaurant, several suggested.
But city zoning administrator Catherine Coyle said officials look at Trinity's plans as being most similar to a restaurant, one of many uses allowed in a general commercial zoning district.
Other allowed uses include clinics (free and otherwise), hospitals, places of assembly, churches, rooming houses, and fraternity and sorority houses.
The city made a similar call years ago regarding the Faith Cafe on Kennedy Boulevard.
"We went with the historic interpretation," she said.
Not all council members bought it.
Harry Cohen is one of several council members who has volunteered as a server at the Trinity Cafe, and he's a big fan.
But, he said, "The city's definition says 'and selling of food.' It does not say 'or selling of food.' If it said 'or selling of food' it would be optional. But 'and' makes it compulsory."
Other council members wondered whether the overarching problem was that Tampa doesn't seem to have comprehensive strategies either to help the homeless or mitigate the impact of such a facility on a neighborhood.
In an attempt to address that, the council asked for police, code enforcement and other city departments to come in for a wide-ranging discussion on issues that residents raised.
That discussion is scheduled for March 1.