Opera house, homeless shelter battle over property

Monday, January 12, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- The operator of a St. Louis homeless shelter has warned the city not to try to block his plans to add a shelter downtown next to the Kiel Opera House.

The Rev. Larry Rice, a staunch advocate of the poor and homeless, has submitted a plan to transform a federal building, when it becomes vacant in January 2006, into a center for homeless services.

But developer Donald Breckenridge -- who wants to reopen Kiel Opera House -- said he needs the building next door as a parking lot.

Rice warned city officials Saturday that he might take legal action if they try to block his plans -- provided his proposal gets the green light from federal officials.

Last month, Rice's organization announced it wanted to create an expanded emergency shelter and center to serve 1,000 homeless people a day at a downtown building that currently houses the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The General Services Administration told homeless groups in September that L. Douglas Abrams federal building will be vacant in 2006, after the USDA moves to another location.

Under the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, the federal government can make surplus federal buildings available for use by nonprofit agencies, local governments and state agencies helping the homeless.

Rice scoffed at the idea of favoring a parking lot over homeless children and women.

"These are human beings," he said at a news conference, surrounded by several residents of his smaller downtown shelter. "Let the people who want to go to the Opera House walk a block or two, but these people have to have a place to go."

Jeff Rainford, Mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff, said the reopening of the Opera House is important to revitalizing downtown. Plus, the group acquiring the building must have the money to maintain it.

"It's extremely expensive to keep up," he said.

Rainford said homelessness is a regional problem that the city of St. Louis cannot be expected to solve on its own.

"If you focus and concentrate poverty in one area, it's not a healthy thing."

And he said a vibrant downtown business district generates more taxes, which support more social services in the state. "So, we are not going to apologize for trying to revitalize downtown," he added.

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