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Soup kitchen in Norwich looks to stay put

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published 09/25/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 09/26/2012 12:16 AM
Neighbors don't want site in former school

Norwich - Residents in the neighborhood surrounding the former St. Joseph School will get a chance to comment on the Diocese of Norwich's plans to keep the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen at the school permanently.

St. Vincent Executive Director Jillian Corbin filed a special permit application Friday with the city planning department seeking to use the former school as a religious and charity use by a nonprofit entity as allowed in city planning and zoning regulations.

The former school at the junction of Cliff Street and Clairmont Avenue is in a multifamily residential zone. Regulations allow religious and nonprofit uses in the zone through a special permit. That process requires a public hearing by the Commission on the City Plan to consider such factors as character of the neighborhood, traffic and prospects of development.

The public hearing will be held Tuesday, Oct. 16, at 7 p.m. in the planning office conference room at 23 Union St. Written comments also will be considered.

The soup kitchen moved to the former school temporarily in June when renovations to the former railroad station behind Main Street forced it to relocate. After some controversy, St. Vincent obtained a six-month temporary permit from city and state building officials to use the former cafeteria in the lower level. The cafeteria, however, has no handicapped access, and would need renovations if the facility were to remain there past the permit expiration date of Jan. 12, 2013.

Neighbors in the Cliff Street area have objected to the move from the start, citing safety concerns and saying the facility would be detrimental to the neighborhood. Residents brought the issue to the City Council Public Safety Committee, expressing all along that they expected the diocese to make the move permanent.

Neighbors renewed their objections last week, when The Most Rev. Michael Cote, bishop of Norwich, sent a letter to St. Joseph parishioners announcing that the soup kitchen could not return to the former railroad station and would seek to remain at St. Joseph at least until a permanent location could be found.

In her application, Corbin called the facility a "church outreach program" and said it would have no detrimental effects on the neighborhood.

"We feel that the proposed use is harmonious with the surrounding neighborhood," the application stated. "We consider the use less intensive than the school when it was operational."

Corbin said the school had 300 students and 20 staff at its peak and 90 students with 16 staff members when it closed in 2010. The application did not give numbers on how many people use the soup kitchen, but in June, Corbin said on average, about 250 people per day come to St. Vincent.

The soup kitchen a food pantry and St. Vincent's case management services would be run at the school. Patrons, volunteers and staff would park in the parking lots for the adjacent St. Joseph Church and the former school parking lot, Corbin wrote in the application.

City Director of Planning Peter Davis said the planning commission's review would be limited to the special permit requirements - including potential effect on the neighborhood - but would not deal with the overall need for the services provided by St. Vincent de Paul Place. Davis said residents should not contact commission members to discuss the application.

c.bessette@theday.com

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