Eminent domain debated
By Dave Copeland and Luis Fabregas
Sunday, March 10, 2002
Opponents and proponents of using eminent domain rarely see eye-to-eye, but they do agree on one thing: The process is seldom easy and rarely pleases all sides.
On Thursday, the Plan C Task Force recommended that Mayor Tom Murphy abandon his pledge to not use eminent domain for Downtown redevelopment efforts. The majority recommendation in the group’s approach brought immediate cries of protest from some Downtown property owners and a Washington, D.C., watchdog group that labeled the recommendation as eminent domain abuse.
But backers of the plan say eminent domain is needed to ensure the city will be able to assemble the multi-block parcel under consideration for redevelopment. Even Murphy conceded last week that eminent domain may be needed if property owners refused to sell their property at reasonable rates to the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority.
Eminent domain was one of the key criticisms of Murphy’s original plan, known as Market Place at Fifth & Forbes. That plan fell apart in November 2000, prompting Murphy to form the Plan C Task Force and pledge not to use eminent domain.
The concept of using eminent domain as a redevelopment tool started in Pittsburgh at the edge of Point State Park. In the late 1940s, the URA used eminent domain to take 23 acres to build Gateway Center, the four steel towers that sit at the entrance to the city. Part of what became known as Pittsburgh’s first Renaissance, Gateway Center was the nation’s first redevelopment project to use eminent domain to transfer property for a private, commercial use.
A decade later, the URA again used the threat of eminent domain to clear 1,300 lower Hill District Buildings to make way for Mellon Arena. Today, the project is still widely criticized for destroying what many consider to have been a vibrant neighborhood and one of the key spots on the national jazz scene.
More than 40 years later, eminent domain still raises tension among elected and business leaders.
State Rep. Bill Robinson has become a vocal critic of eminent domain. Robinson, a Democrat from Schenley Heights, said it was a ruling from the county Court of Common Pleas — in the case involving a church displaced by the URA — that broadened the scope of eminent domain locally into the area of retail developments.
Experts say eminent domain is used by government to create space for schools, playgrounds and infrastructure. In theory, it is the government’s right to acquire private property for public use.
“Eminent domain has been used more as a power tool that’s in the back room and you have it, but you end up never using it,” said Karen Alschuler, an urban planner in San Francisco. “You can always use it as a last resort, but it’s always better if you don’t have to go through the actual legal proceeding.”
In Pittsburgh, eminent domain most recently has been the tool of choice to rid the North Side of one of its most notable tenants — the X-rated Garden Theatre. Despite the site’s condemnation, the owner has refused to sell the building and the case remains tangled in a court battle.
Mayor Tom Murphy often talks of the Garden Theatre as the only time his administration has been forced to file an eminent domain suit against a property owner. The case remains unsettled, and has held up the Federal-North project aimed at redeveloping two rundown blocks on the North Side.
To date, the URA has paid more than $500,000 in legal fees in the four-year dispute. Currently, the case is awaiting a decision in the county Court of Common Pleas.
In 1999, the URA threatened to take North Side land and buildings owned by the Pittsburgh Wool Co. by eminent domain with plans of transferring the acquired property to the H.J. Heinz Co. The city never filed an eminent domain suit, but ended up paying $5 million for property that had an assessed value of $1.5 million.
The URA sold the land to Heinz for $1.5 million. Today, it is occupied by the food maker’s new, 70,000-square-foot warehouse.
“Eminent domain is appropriate for a true public works project — the building of a road, the building of a dam, the building of a school,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which has staged campaigns against the use of eminent domain as a redevelopment tool. “Unfortunately, over the past 40 or 50 years, we’ve gotten away from that.”
The institute has vowed to defend Downtown property owners for free if the city tries to take their property with eminent domain.
Not everyone directly affected by eminent domain opposes it.
“Sometimes we all have to make a bigger sacrifice in order to be part of this community,” said Pat Joseph, executive director of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Joseph was forced to move her North Side office in the Martin Building along General Robinson and Federal streets to make room for PNC Park. “Eminent domain is not a negative thing, as long as everyone is represented.”
Plan C Task Force spokeswoman and city Planning Director Susan Golomb said eminent domain would be used only as a last resort. She branded the Institute for Justice as “out-of-towners.”
“I think the issue you should understand is that the Plan C Task Force is made up of Pittsburghers. This is a group of people who had very different opinions that came together and formed a consensus,” Golomb said. “We think this is a very exciting plan and feel it’s unfortunate that an out-of-town group would come in to criticize it.”