I was deeply troubled to read the words of Pastor Chris Olson Bingea stating that First Lutheran Church and Listening House have each hired lawyers to defend their decision to ignore St. Paul zoning regulations (“Drop-in center plans to defy St. Paul edict,” March 4).
No one doubts each organization’s commitment to care for the poor and dispossessed at the daytime drop in center for homeless and lonely people they’re now operating out of the church.
What bothers me most is that the practice of Christian compassion and the value of loving one’s neighbor do not seem to extend to communicating with the families who live across the street. As the City Council member representing Listening House, First Lutheran Church and their residential neighbors, I have been trying to facilitate such communication, including offering to provide a mediator to explore a resolution.
In fact, St. Paul’s zoning committee, planning commission and my office all made clear that our preference was for Listening House and First Lutheran to work with their neighbors on a plan. The best outcome would be a mutually crafted agreement to make this intense zoning use fit into the fragile residential neighborhood tucked in between East Seventh Street and Swede Hollow Park, which is already home to a number of group homes and sober houses.
Swede Hollow neighbors, who between them are parents to more than a dozen preschool- and grade school-aged children, invested more than four weeks last fall trying to get Listening House and First Lutheran to work with them to mitigate impacts. Since Listening House’s low-barrier-to-entry program moved in, neighbors routinely deal with behaviors that include outdoor drinking and drug use and public urination, and they frequently find disoriented and inebriated people on their front porches or wandering through their yards.
Neighbors did not ask the city for the 20-person restriction on Listening House. The Planning Commission imposed that limit in keeping with restrictions that have been placed on tenants that rent space in other churches. The attendance cap was also based on the zoning code which requires of these uses that “there shall be no detriments to the residential character” of the neighborhood. The City Council merely upheld the conditions imposed by the Planning Commission.
Flaunting city regulations and battling its neighbors with lawyers and in the media will ensure continued upheaval — not just for Listening House and First Lutheran, but for the vulnerable people they aim to serve. Why not focus on reaching out to neighbors in the spirit of humility, healing and shared purpose?
Jane Prince is a member of the St. Paul City Council.