After more than five hours of discussion there is still no decision on what will happen to the New Plaza motel on the 400 block of 34 Street North. Owners of that motel and the bar attached to it are in hot water with the city after multiple service calls to the police originated from New Plaza and Cactus Charlie’s bar.
The city’s nuisance abatement board heard testimony from the city during a quasi-judicial hearing arguing that owners of the property were in violation of previous nuisance abatement orders and were chronic offenders of abatement standards.
Andrea Luce, the city’s attorney in the case, called officers and detectives within the St. Petersburg Police department who have been dispatched to the property for various complaints.
Officer Caran Patrick testified that the city received 230 calls for service to either New Plaza or Cactus Charlie. The complaints ranged from drug tips and prostitution to noise complaints and assault.
Officers, including two undercover detectives who testified behind a curtain and whose voices were digitally altered to protect their identities, testified about numerous drug cases involving targeted drug buys by detectives and others by confidential informants under police supervision.
Those cases involved dealers who openly sold cocaine, crack cocaine and marijuana inside the bar. One officer even testified that one of the sales involved a dealer who shouted loudly so everyone in the bar could hear him that, “I got you,” referring to illegal drugs.
An attorney representing New Plaza argued that the owner had made attempts to reduce crime on his property by installing security equipment and cameras, hiring armed security and installing a 6-foot-tall fence. He claimed the number of calls in 2014 dropped by 50 from the previous year. He asked that the city not vote to close the motel down, noting that it is used as affordable housing for seniors, veterans, single mothers and transient construction workers in town for work.
“The answer I believe is to require that the police work with the property owner, that they give them notice when there’s a problem … that they give them adequate opportunities to cure the problem … and that they get these criminals off the street,” said New Plaza attorney Walter Smith.
He said forcing the business to close would only lead to more blight and more crime.
Despite hearing nearly five hours of testimony, the board did not reach a decision during its Wednesday meeting. Instead, they will continue hearing testimony from Smith defending New Plaza, including several people who live there.
That meeting will be heard during their meeting next month. The time will be determined based on availability of City Council chambers.
Board members did not hear from members of the public on the case, however. Due to a change to the board’s policy approved last year, quasi-judicial proceedings are not required to allow public comment.
That’s a problem for some residents. Especially those who live near the troubled stretch of 34 Street that includes more than just New Plaza. City Council member Amy Foster has made nuisance abatement one of her top priorities since taking office. She received numerous emails from residents in neighboring areas including historic Kenwood.
Those emails made their way to other city staff as well. The outrage that the public would not have a chance to share what they’ve seen of the property – drug deals and prostitution aplenty – prompted the board to vote to discuss the policy more in depth and possibly consider a change.
Because the board “lost steam” after five hours of legalese, that discussion got postponed. They will instead discuss the matter during a special meeting on March 18.
Foster waited through the entire meeting and did get a chance to speak. She urged the board to “do the right thing,” referring to hearing public comment. She pointed out that while the board is allowed to limit public comment during quasi-judicial hearings, they don’t have to. City Council hears public comment during the same type of proceedings.
“Open meetings are like motherhood,” Foster closed out her three minutes she waited nearly an entire workday to deliver. “No one wants to be on record for being against it.”