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Murphy says eminent domain not a threat at present time

By Dave Copeland
Wednesday, April 3, 2002

Without completely ruling out its use, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy said the city will attempt to implement the Plan C Task Force proposal for redeveloping Downtown without using eminent domain.
“We have not authorized eminent domain. So when we approach a building owner now, we will be negotiating with them amicably in attempting to come to a fair price without the threat of eminent domain there,” Murphy said Tuesday in his first public comments on the proposal. “We are ruling it out right now, but I can’t speak for the future.”

The mayor also outlined a plan for moving forward with the task force’s recommendations and said he hopes to name a developer within two months.

The task force, made up of government officials and private stakeholders, unveiled a strategy for redeveloping the Fifth-Forbes corridor last month. The group had urged Murphy to go back on a November 2000 pledge not to use eminent domain, saying it would take too long to redevelop Pittsburgh’s tired retail core without using the controversial technique.

Murphy’s statements brought at least temporary relief to opponents of eminent domain, a legal tool governments can use to take property for a public purpose.

“As long as we’re not using eminent domain, I can support the plan,” said Patty Maloney, one of three Plan C Task Force members who signed a minority opinion against using eminent domain. She owns the Card Center on Wood Street.

Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, said he was encouraged that “some progress has been made with the mayor,” but said Murphy did not go far enough in making his pledge not to use eminent domain. The Washington, D.C.-based institute has said it would defend any Fifth-Forbes property owner who wants to fight eminent domain proceedings.
“Mayor Murphy should pledge not to use eminent domain in the Fifth and Forbes area now and forever,” Bullock said. “Leaving the door open, even a little bit, will create uncertainty for property owners and will actually discourage investment in the area, because people will not know for sure whether the city will come after their property.”

The task force was formed after Murphy’s plan, Market Place at Fifth & Forbes, unraveled in 2000. The mayor charged the 13-member group with forming a consensus on redeveloping Downtown. Among the chief criticisms of his first plan were its failure to preserve historic buildings, the use of eminent domain and what was seen as a limited housing component.

Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Mulugetta Birru, who will play a key role in any redevelopment plan, said it will be “very difficult” to get a developer to undertake the project without eminent domain.

“That’s the mayor’s commitment and, therefore, there is no eminent domain in place. All of us support his decision,” Birru said. “Eminent domain assures the developer we can get control of the properties. Now the question is whether or not we can find a developer to invest all that money and be willing to take the properties as we’re able to buy them.”

Without eminent domain, Murphy and Birru said, one property owner who holds out for more money can derail portions of the project.

City Councilman William Peduto said he would have supported using eminent domain in the plan.

“I see it as a tool that can be used when one person or one group tries to stop the will of the community or holds out for an unreasonable amount of money,” Peduto said. “If council gets to the point where we have to make that call, I hope the body will rely on common sense.”

Peduto said, however, that he felt the Plan C proposal was an improvement over the mayor’s original plan. He said he felt the expanded housing component and a proposed hotel would add the critical mass needed to support the district, and the Plan C blueprint made more of an effort to preserve historic buildings.

Challenges for the Downtown overhaul don’t end with eminent domain.

When city officials first began discussing Downtown redevelopment plans five years ago, the region was under-retailed. Now, with The Waterfront in Homestead, a new mall at Robinson Towne Center, the expansion of Station Square and plans for a new development between PNC Park and Heinz Field, the Fifth-Forbes district will have heavy competition, Murphy said.

Murphy said he envisions Fifth-Forbes being the Golden Triangle’s centerpiece, bridging the cultural district to other parts of Downtown.

“I think part of the challenge for a developer responding to this request for proposals is answering the question, ‘What’s the niche for this Downtown in the context of all the other investments taking place?'” the mayor said.

The plan
Mayor Tom Murphy unveiled a five-point plan Tuesday for implementing the Plan C Task Force Downtown redevelopment proposal. He would not speculate how long it would take for the project to be completed.
Among the components of the plan:

The city planning department will seek proposals from developers. Murphy hopes to name a developer within two months.

Once a developer is selected, the city will hammer out a financing plan. Murphy said it was too soon to tell whether that plan would resemble the one recommended by the task force, which called for a $360 million development funded mainly with $51.5 million in public money, $39.5 million in corporate and philanthropic donations and $264 million in private investment.

Begin an $8 million, city-funded infrastructure improvement program in the Central Business District, with a focus on reconstructing Forbes Avenue, Smithfield Street and Market Street.

Direct the Urban Redevelopment Authority to expand a grant program for restoring building facades, as well as create new loan programs to allow existing tenants and building owners to improve their properties. The URA would focus its existing loan programs on the Central Business District.

Begin an aggressive program to enforce city building codes in the Fifth-Forbes area.

Dave Copeland can be reached at or (412) 320-7922.

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