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Mr. Mayor, Uptown wants to know...

(ran East, South, West editions)

Like many residents, the people of Uptown worry that their community police officers may be pulled toward more duties outside the neighborhood _ and thus spend less time knowing what happens on their designated home turf.

Mayor David Fischer suggested Thursday night it won't happen.

Meeting with about 75 Uptown residents, Fischer responded when someone expressed concern about a possible reduction in the community policing program.

"It would be a huge, huge problem if we lost our community police officers," Mark Taber said.

Police Chief Goliath Davis helped design the program that is so popular with many residents during the late 1980s, Fischer said.

"He would be the last person to want to reduce it. Politically, it couldn't be done. I can't imagine our community policing effort dwindling at all," the mayor said.

The Uptown crowd, which filled a small auditorium at the Sunshine Center, absorbed the mayor's comments, apparently pleased but a bit skeptical. They know they are still in a fight to keep the gains their transitional enclave has made during the past few years.

Uptown is one of St. Petersburg's more intriguing neighborhoods. Just a hop from downtown over the north interstate feeder, it has bright, rehabilitated homes with trim yards _ but also a list of boarded houses that residents say attract transients and drug dealers.

It is a neighborhood of families and children, enough to warrant support for a playground and park.

But other youngsters, in their early teens or even younger, ride bicycles on some streets, acting as drug couriers, some residents report.

"We had one about 14, and another 9 or 10 ask us if we wanted to buy drugs (Wednesday) night," Dennis Mason said.

Code enforcement has improved the appearance of the neighborhood, but some owners wonder why the city can't do more about shabby-looking rooming houses they say attract undesirable tenants.

Despite the problems, it is clear residents harbor an affection and a vision for their neighborhood.

"I've been touting it as the new Hyde Park," said Steve Finch, referring to the historic Tampa neighborhood, renovated in recent years.

Finch is rehabilitating a 1918 house at 621 Earl Ave. A half-block away on Seventh Street N, vacant land the city acquired awaits the building of four new houses. Finch has started a campaign to put a park and a playground there instead.

He said there are 35 children on his block alone. And he said he saw many more while walking the neighborhood to hand out a few hundred fliers pushing the park idea.

There appeared to be support for it Thursday night, and Fischer said the city would be willing to consider a park, though perhaps not on the Seventh Street property.

Meanwhile, some residents have expressed concern about the four new houses on Seventh Street, and a fifth planned for nearby Grove Street. They wonder if they will fit the neighborhood's historic character, and some have voiced concern that the new houses would be for low-income residents.

The project is part of the city's overall neighborhood housing strategy in which the city buys property and sometimes demolishes boarded houses on it, said housing manager Bob Rowan.

The city plans to sell the Seventh Street property to a developer whose designs will fit comfortably with Uptown's essence, Rowan said. The houses will be in the $80,000 to $90,000 price range.

The objective, Rowan said, will be to increase the average housing value in the neighborhood, "and to encourage slightly more affluent people to move in."

He was cool to the idea of the park on the site. "That wasn't the idea going in, and it's not the idea now," Rowan said.

The mayor stood and answered questions for an hour and 15 minutes before requesting a chair and continuing for another 20.

Uptown, he said, is special because it was the first project in his program to improve neighborhoods. "It was our proving ground. It was where we tested everything," he said.

He also reaffirmed a commitment that homeowners are the most important elements for the closest neighborhood to downtown. He did so while answering a question about why the city isn't more lenient with "investors" _ in this case, meaning rooming house owners in Uptown.

"We're interested more in homeowners than investors," Fischer said. "A neighborhood comes alive when investors move out and homeowners move in. . . . A smart investor would keep their places up to the highest code possible."

It brought loud applause from the people who see their neighborhood's future as one of brick streets and stately homes.

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