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Board leaves soup kitchen in limbo.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

SPRINGFIELD - There was no right answer for Springfield Planning Commission members who met on Wednesday night to decide the fate of a soup kitchen operating without permission since November at the American Legion Hall.

The board listened to about 90 minutes of passionate testimony from supporters of the soup kitchen and neighbors whose homes have been vandalized and who have felt threatened by aggressive transients who frequent the kitchen, before concluding that they could not make everyone happy.

Instead, the commission postponed the decision until next week and asked city staff members to draw up a proposal to allow the soup kitchen to operate on a reduced schedule, with conditions imposed that would address neighborhood concerns.

"It's an irresistible force meeting an immovable object," Commissioner William Carpenter said.

GOREAP, a Christian charity that serves the meals at the American Legion Hall, applied for permission to continue the service after being told by city staff that the building, located in the Historic Washburne District, was in a residential zone that doesn't permit such uses.

At Wednesday's hearing eight people who live near the American Legion Hall called on the commission to deny permission because of a raft of problems that included transients urinating on their property, vandalism, overnight camping, trespassing, obscene and loud arguments, and some men carrying knives on their belts - problems that only began after the soup kitchen started.

"I'm very concerned about those in need," said Bill Schoonhoven, who owns a house that he rents out across the street from the American Legion Hall. Schoonhoven said he had just returned from a mission to India. His tenant, a single mother with two children, doesn't feel safe in the house anymore, he told commissioners. The soup kitchen was a good idea in a bad location, he said.

Greg Leno, who lives next door to the American Legion Hall, said he no longer allowed his two young daughters to play in the family's backyard because transients throw garbage over the fence, yell obscenities that can be heard from inside the house and have slept on his property.

"Safety is a big issue for me and my family," he said.

Volunteers who work at the soup kitchen showed pictures of children, many of them coming in hungry on the weekends, and homeless men who were turning their lives around as a result of the loving support provided by GOREAP.

"There's a man who's changed his lifestyle. He's a completely different person," said volunteer Serena Swenson. Moreover, shutting down the soup kitchen would only move the problem, she said.

"It's an issue that's not going to go away," she said.

The American Legion, which has been in the neighborhood since the late 1940s, has played host to a variety of community members and groups, opening its doors to churches, other clubs, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and private parties for dances, weddings and funerals. For several years it operated a bar five days a week. Post adjutant Frank Blair argued that the historic uses of the building were so varied and intense that the soup kitchen did not represent a more intensified use that would require city permission.

At least one commissioner was old enough to know the post's history first hand.

"That and the Memorial Building was where everything happened," said Commissioner Steve Moe. He recalled dances and pancake breakfasts and parties of all kinds. "There were cars all up and down these streets. ... It's been a place that has served this city well."

Most of the commissioners expressed an inclination to continue allowing GOREAP to operate on a reduced schedule.

Only Commissioner Gayle Decker was doubtful that such a resolution could work. Decker said she came down on the side of the residents, and suggested giving GOREAP a few months to find a new home.

"It's working for feeding the people," said Commissioner Lee Beyer. "It's not working for the neighborhood."

The Commission members chose to postpone their vote until a meeting on Tuesday. In the meantime, they directed city staff to come up with proposals that might ease the conflicts with neighbors. The solutions include cutting the days of operation, requiring some fencing around the property, and improving the hall's lighting, parking and landscaping.
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Title Annotation:Government; The Springfield Planning Commission postpones a decision on the fate of GOREAP's operation at the American Legion Hall
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 7, 2005
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