Seeking Salvation

A Central Oak Park expansion has raised suspicions about the Salvation Army's plans

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click to enlarge Major Gary Elliott, the Salvation Army's commander in St. Petersburg, envisions an "intergenerational campus" for kids and seniors. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
Major Gary Elliott, the Salvation Army's commander in St. Petersburg, envisions an "intergenerational campus" for kids and seniors.

Major Gary Elliott, the Salvation Army's commander in St. Petersburg, envisions an "intergenerational campus" for kids and seniors. W.J. Morris lives two doors down from the Salvation Army's property and has questions about its plans, shown behind him on an aerial photo. A Central Oak Park expansion has raised suspicions about the Salvation Army's plans. In a shaded corner of Central Oak Park, the St. Petersburg neighborhood that is one of Tampa Bay's most active housing markets, there is a growing concern among some folks that their surroundings are rapidly turning into something other than residential.

They wonder aloud if they've been targeted as a new ground zero for various nonprofit agencies' halfway houses, children's homes, low-income senior housing and other various government-funded social services.

Just because they're paranoid doesn't mean they're wrong.

The most recent concern is a proposal by the Salvation Army to rework its collection of buildings for children's services and low-income housing in the 3800-4000 block of Ninth Avenue N. into what it calls an "intergenerational family campus."

The Salvation Army has asked the city to let it close two streets and two alleys and grant a number of special variances from city codes to create the six-block campus west of its sanctuary at Ninth Avenue N. and 38th Street in St. Petersburg. A new 11,000-square-foot building for children's services and a short-term disaster relief distribution center are part of the project.

The Salvation Army already operates two different children's programs in unmarked Central Oak Park buildings. The programs are good and very necessary, especially for the children who have nowhere else to go. Its expansion plans would create a unique setting where foster children would benefit from living next door to senior citizens, and vice versa.

Up until now, the Salvation Army has gotten along well with its neighbors. But the size of the campus plan and the possibility of future expansion has raised suspicions to a conspiracy-theory level. Salvation Army officials insist they've been upfront with the community and have no secret agenda.

"We're not sure we believe them," said Ken Garliepp, president of the Central Oak Park Neighborhood Association. "They have a history of being very secretive."

And while the Salvation Army has promised in meetings with the neighborhood and in writing not to relocate its drug or homeless services to the campus, it is not the only social services player in the area. Boley Centers for Behavioral Health Care Inc. owns or manages three social services-funded properties (with a total of 12 apartments) right across Seventh Avenue N. from the Salvation Army campus. Boley serves individuals with emotional, psychiatric and behavioral problems.

Along with the Salvation Army property, that adds up to a roughly eight-block, taxpayer-funded social services "village" in a neighborhood that already struggles to beat down drugs and prostitution. With so much of the Central Oak Park in transition and for sale, the neighborhood is ripe for targeting as a "halfway-house" mecca.

"It would seem that it might be," said Dan Spice, past president of the neighborhood association, "and that is the concern that we have."

Central Oak Park is changing for the better because of the home-sales boom hitting urban neighborhoods throughout Tampa Bay. It is just west of the hot St. Pete gentrification zone that is Kenwood. Roughly, Central Oak Park is bounded by 34th Street (and its pernicious hooker problem) on the east, 49th Street on the west, Ninth Avenue N. on the north and Fifth Avenue S. on the south.It is the kind of neighborhood where a home that sold for $89,000 in 2003 sells this year for $131,300. You can still find historic and affordable homes built in the 1930s, brick streets and octagonal-paver sidewalks. A St. Petersburg Times story last year called it "turnover central" because of the high number of home sales. It is on its way back up after a half-century of decline.

It is also the kind of neighborhood where you can live next door to a crack house and have a 9mm handgun flashed at you as you walk your dog in the morning, as W.J. Morris has experienced.

Morris is the loudest voice of dissent against the Salvation Army's campus plan. Not because he is against children or seniors or social services; he's not. He makes a forceful case that the Salvation Army hasn't been forthcoming in its presentation of the project and has been unwilling to alter its plans to better suit the area. He worries that the carte blanche of creating a unified campus opens the door for further services and buildings at that site in the future, regardless of any assurances given by the Salvation Army.

According to Morris, who lives two doors away, if the Salvation Army is allowed to redesignate its holdings as one big property they'll be able to build at will - "no matter what that letter says."

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