Norwich soup kitchen having a hard time finding a new permanent home

Norwich - Finding a new location for the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen and food pantry has proved difficult and expensive, according to Diocese of Norwich officials who hope to receive city approval to keep the facility at its temporary location at the former St. Joseph School.

The move there has been controversial since July, when city and state building officials granted six-month permits to move to the former school. The city planning commission rejected a special permit after neighbors successfully opposed the relocation.

At last Tuesday's Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on St. Vincent's request for a zoning variance to change the use of the school building, diocesan Chief Financial Officer William Russell presented a spreadsheet outlining a nearly four-year-long search for a new location.

The move last summer from the longtime location at the former train station at 10 Railroad Ave. came under emergency circumstances, as major structural damage forced the building to close.

The former railroad station, however, is listed on the spreadsheet that includes 13 locations throughout the greater downtown Norwich area that were examined as possible sites. But the notes on the railroad station erroneously stated that the soup kitchen use there has been discontinued.

Zoning Enforcement Officer Tianne Curtis said the zoning use remains intact, and the soup kitchen could move back there without needing new planning permits or a zoning variance.

That would not be the case in every other site considered for the soup kitchen, Curtis said. The facility would need a special permit in a residential zone, and would need a use variance from the ZBA in any other zone.

"There is no place in the city that allows it by permitted use," Curtis said.

The ZBA closed the lengthy public hearing Tuesday and will discuss the variance request May 14. By state law, four of the five ZBA members would need to vote in favor to approve the application.

Diocese spokesman Michael Strammiello said even without the zoning notation mistake the former train station had other problems. The lease price was rising and the space was cramped. The building had limited parking and handicapped accessibility.

Several other prominent downtown sites were examined and all had major issues, the diocese reported. While the former YMCA on Main Street often is cited as a possible site, it needs a new heating system estimated at $250,000 or more and other extensive renovations. Or the building could be torn down and a new one built.

The diocese looked at three other Main Street buildings in that vicinity. Renovations would be extensive and operations expensive at the current post office. Next door, the former Elks Club and Majestic Rose restaurant building is being renovated for a small hotel, and two floors would be "not appropriate for our needs."

The former Floor Covering Shop at the corner of Main and North Main would need a kitchen and the main floor is too small.

On three other sites looked at, the notation read "not for sale," including the city emergency management garage at 10 McKinley Ave. and a former warehouse on Falls Avenue also owned by the city.

The former Mai Thai restaurant on Laurel Hill Avenue has a kitchen, but the kitchen is on two floors, and there isn't enough space for a kitchen and dining hall on one floor.

Strammiello said the spreadsheet presented shows that it is very difficult to find a location for the soup kitchen, despite what seems to be an abundance of large, vacant buildings downtown.

"There's been a lot of homework done, a lot of exploration done," Strammiello said of the search for a new location. "What it shows is that is very hard. There are very few (buildings) that are close to being viable."

c.bessette@theday.com

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