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Shopping center overwhelmed by success

Belinda Speight has a cardinal rule for shopping at her local Publix: Never go on weekends.

Speight also avoids rush hour. A teacher at Coleman Middle School, she shops right after school or late at night when the chances of snagging a parking space are greatest.

The parking shortage at the shopping center at Dale Mabry Highway and Neptune Street has Speight examining other options and sometimes defecting to other grocery stores. With the addition of three stores, a restaurant and a bank, she knows it will only get worse.

"I honestly feel that Publix hasn't been considerate of our shopping needs, and I'm rather put off by it," said Speight, while shopping with her three children last week.

The Publix sits on one of the busiest commercial corridors in South Tampa. It serves a diverse mix of residents in neighborhoods ranging from Virginia Park, where Speight lives, to Beach Park.

Motorists' troubles began last year when construction began on a Bank of America branch in Publix's parking lot. Publix also leased land to Crispers, a 5,400-square-foot restaurant that expects to open on the northwest corner in May. Since Publix bought a majority stake in Crispers in 2004, the entities have looked for ways to operate in close proximity.

For many residents, the tipping point came when developers began erecting three new stores adjacent to Publix. One of the stores will become Publix Wine and Spirits. Other plans call for Eddie's Custom Cleaners and another unnamed retail tenant.

When the businesses finally open, customers expect to battle for far fewer parking spaces. For many shoppers, the fight has already begun.

Publix officials say they've logged several customer complaints about parking. But they insist they've planned adequately for growth.

"The best I can say is that we are concerned with (parking) and we are sensitive to the customer shopping experience," said Dwaine Stevens, a Publix spokesman. "All of the parking has been approved by City Council."

South Tampa Chamber of Commerce president Anita Ramirez said business leaders worry about what rapid growth means for the area's aging infrastructure.

"It's good to see the businesses doing so well and everything in South Tampa progressing along, but we do have to look at the problems that are being created and get them fixed," Ramirez said.

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Eddie Alverio owns Eddie's Custom Cleaners on Kennedy Boulevard with his son Richie Alverio and plans to open a second location in the Publix complex in April. Though excited about the new location, Eddie Alverio fears parking shortages could hurt his business.

"There's a concern," Alverio said. "If there were not, I would not be a good businessman. I'm trying to look beyond that and hoping that I can make my numbers and pay the rent."

To lure customers, Alverio said he will offer curbside service.

Next door, workers are putting the finishing touches on Crispers, which will feature a 150-seat restaurant and an 80-seat outdoor patio.

Crispers executives said the site was a perfect fit.

"We've looked at sites in the past, but could never find a site that had enough parking," said Mike Calhoon, Crispers' president and chief executive. "That's why we're excited about this site. Land is at a premium there."

Calhoon said his company has ample parking for its patrons.

Bank of America officials were equally optimistic about being able to accommodate its customers. They plan to open the branch on Feb. 27.

"We probably wouldn't have built there if we knew that we wouldn't be able to handle the capacity," said Diane Wagner, a Bank of America spokeswoman.

According to city transportation officials, 55 spaces in the shopping center will belong to Crispers. Bank of America will get 18 spaces. Developers allocated five spaces for Publix Wine and Spirits and 10 slots for the two remaining retail stores. About 206 spaces belong to the grocery store. The total, 294, meets city regulations for the property.

Absent formal observations, city officials said they could not tell whether Publix had a dearth of parking or if shoppers were complaining about mere inconvenience.

Thom Snelling, the city's deputy director of business and housing, suspects that as many as 100 spaces are regularly taken up by construction workers and will be freed up once the stores open. But if customers' complaints ring true, shoppers may have little recourse.

"If the parking lot is completely full and the buildings are meeting their parking requirements by code at the time they were permitted, then there's nothing the city can do," Snelling said. "If there is a shortage, then the businesses that are there will be the ones that will suffer whatever the consequences."

Some Publix shoppers agree.

"If there's no parking, then people are going to go to (the Gandy Publix)," said Marlene Rasmussen, president of the Golf View Civic Association. "I've already had several of my neighbors say I don't even bother with that store anymore. I hope they don't create their own monster."

David Hoffman easily got a parking space last week. But he's not always so lucky. Sometimes he parks across the street near Massage Envy. Twice, when he couldn't find a space, he went to Kash n' Karry on Swann Avenue.

"(Publix) gave up too much parking in the process of developing this space," he said. "I love this location because of the convenience of everything, but it's getting harder and harder to get around in traffic."

Marcella Schuyler doesn't know what all the fuss is about.

"I've never had a problem parking here," Schuyler said as she loaded her groceries into her car last week.

About the critics, "They don't know what problems are," she said. "Go to another city."

Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sppimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

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