City offers less for property than it did 40 years ago — Peoria [IL] Journal Star, 12/8/04

Attorney for woman who owns small parcel of land on Sears Block says Peoria would rather take land by force

By Jennifer Davis

The city of Peoria is reportedly offering less now for a small parcel of privately owned land on the Sears Block than it did 40 years ago, the owner's attorney said Tuesday, claiming the city would rather just take the land by force.

"Elizabeth Ehrlich is a 77-year-old senior citizen who has lived, worked and paid taxes in this community," her attorney, Eitan Weltman of Bloomington, told the City Council. "The city should not try and pry this property away from her just because they can find a legal loophole."

The city needs Ehrlich's property and three other small parcels of privately owned land on the old Sears block for a city-sponsored megadeal: a new $67 million Lakeview Museum and multimillion-dollar Caterpillar Inc. visitors center. The other three parcels are owned by Helen and Raymond Ulevitch and the SLG Cohen Foundation. Neither could be reached for comment Tuesday.

"We have read several times (recently) about the millions of dollars being invested there and are aware of the revenue it could generate for the city moving forward," said Weltman, adding his client just wants a fair price.

In the early 1960s, the city offered $50,000 for Ehrlich's land. This year, the city made an initial offer of just $43,000, according to Weltman. City officials wouldn't comment on price negotiations.

Also, Weltman said the city and Journal Star over the years has unfairly characterized his client as "unreasonable and unreachable."

At-large City Councilman Gary Sandberg sided with the Ehrlich family.

"There's been no face-to-face (negotiations). We've dictated the process like these people weren't people," Sandberg said. "In the '60s, they were offered $50,000 for the same piece of property. In 1979, they once again were offered money when the city was going to build a mall there. And now, with this good-faith bargaining, we haven't even met that $50,000 mark from the early '60s. And why? Because we've got the 10,000-pound gorilla: eminent domain and quick take."

Still, Sandberg was the only council member to vote against the city exercising its eminent domain authority.

City Manager Randy Oliver noted that Tuesday's action doesn't preclude further negotiations or force the owners to accept a city-set price. If the process continues, a judge will decide if there's been good-faith bargaining and what is a fair price.

The city hopes to take title to all four parcels by the end of February so demolition can proceed on the block.

While the city has planned for years to develop that two-block area between Liberty and Main streets, the council entered into an agreement just last year to allow Lakeview Museum to build a new $67 million regional museum.

Last week, Caterpillar announced its plans to build its worldwide visitors center on the plot. On Monday, the Fortune 500 company announced a large gift to Lakeview - $7 million outright and matching contributions that could total $20 million.

The Journal Star: www.pjstar.com