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Midtown shopping center on fast track

(ran East, South, West, Seminole editions)

A planned Midtown shopping center hurdled a permitting obstacle last week, while a few residents continue to simmer about a liquor store the project will bring.

The $5.4-million center, anchored by a Kash n' Karry supermarket in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods, won staff approval of about 10 exceptions to city codes.

Usually such exceptions, called variances, require approval of the city's Environmental Development Commission, a citizens' oversight board.

This time the variances avoided board scrutiny.

Zoning official John Hixenbaugh said the streamlined approval will help expedite the shopping center. The developer, Urban Development Solutions, hopes to break ground this spring on the northeast corner of 18th Avenue S and 22nd Street.

"We are certainly conveying to this property development rights that would not be conveyed elsewhere in the city," Hixenbaugh said.

"It's a really unique project in a really unique location. For those reasons, we can support the project."

Meanwhile, some residents, including a former City Council member, remain incensed about a liquor store that plans show will be attached to the Kash n' Karry.

Their complaints: The liquor store will be too close to Perkins Elementary School across 22nd Street S, that a half-dozen such stores already serve the neighborhood, and that one more will further encourage men to loiter and drink.

"I don't want kids seeing that," said Johnny Welch, who was principal of Perkins for 12 years before the school was rebuilt. He is president of the Casler Heights Neighborhood Association, across 18th Avenue from the shopping center.

He said he has seen first-hand the problems a liquor store can pose. Customers of one nearby consistently loitered near the school, Welch said.

That store, on the northwest corner of 18th Avenue and 22nd Street, burned down during the 1996 disturbance. It was never rebuilt and the school district bought the property for the new Perkins elementary and magnet school.

The law that prohibits some alcoholic beverage outlets near schools won't apply in this case, says the city's legal staff.

A state law says says bars can't open within 500 feet of a school, but it doesn't forbid package stores, said Mark Winn, chief assistant city attorney.

City codes have a 400-foot requirement, but it won't apply because the liquor store's sales are incidental to the development's main retail use, Winn said.

David Welch is Johnny Welch's brother and served on the City Council during the 1990s. He recalled a Walgreens that opened in 1997 on Dr. Martin Luther King Street S and 22nd Avenue.

"They intended to put a liquor store in there. We talked with the partners and they said, "Hey, we don't need to put a liquor store there.' And they have a good and viable business," David Welch said.

The typical Kash n' Karry model plan includes a liquor store, said Larry Newsome, president of Urban Development Solutions.

"I've gotten complaints from a small group. I haven't gotten the complaint from that broader community," Newsome said.

"I don't drink," he said. "But who am I to determine what the adults in the community can have?"

Kash n' Karry officials say the Midtown store will be similar to their newest one, which is at 2525 Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. There, the liquor store is in a building next door. It is a separate entity without access from the grocery store.

In the liquor store, a shopper can't see through to the main grocery. But any grocery shopper looking for the liquor store can follow the dark teal footprints on the outside sidewalk that say "visit our liquor store next door."

Word from the supermarket industry is that sales of alcoholic beverages, whether as part of the grocery store or as a separate but attached store translate to ringing registers.

"In states where it's possible, stores are increasingly adding liquor sales," said Todd Hultquist, a spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association representing the industry.

"It's really just more of a continuation of stores wanting to be a one-stop shopping opportunity for consumers," Hultquist said.

In a September 2003 article, Progressive Grocer, a trade publication, showed that alcoholic beverages ranked fourth in sales growth among major supermarket departments in 2002.

A month ago, the City Council approved leasing the shopping center site to Urban Development Solutions and lending the company construction money.

During the public hearing portion, four residents said that although they support the grocery store, they oppose the liquor store.

"We've said that from day one," said Chrisshun Cox, president of Melrose/Mercy, the neighborhood that includes the shopping center site.

Most admit they believe the shopping center _ with liquor store _ is a done deal.

But Cox said last week she will continue to raise the issue.

"I want to get the word out. There are parents who have kids at Perkins who are not aware of what's going on. I think they should be aware," Cox said.

"The neighborhoods should have more say about what is going to be in those buildings."

The City Council again will consider the development in a few weeks, Hixenbaugh said, giving residents another chance to have their say.

Staff writer Sharon Bond contributed to this report.