Property owner feels pressure to sell over proposed condo development San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune, 12/23/04

By Amy Oakes

Francisco Flores ignored the letters asking if he wanted to sell his homes on Roosevelt Street [in Chula Vista]. And he only half-listened to the real estate agent who came knocking on his door one day.

Local developer Jim Pieri is pushing plans to build two 200-foot-high luxury condominium towers and 16 town houses on land that included Flores' homes. Pieri made it clear he wants Flores' property for his project, but Flores didn't really care all that much.

It wasn't until Flores received a letter – a copy of correspondence between Pieri and the city – mentioning the city's ability to take property by force in redevelopment areas that he started to worry.

"When he (the real estate agent) gave him the letter, he started to pay attention," said Flores' son, Alex, who was translating for his father. "It mentioned eminent domain."

While many of his neighbors have agreed to sell, Flores is one of the few holdouts. He has no intention of selling the 15,000-square-foot lot where his family lives.

The city has no legal authority to take his property, a point city officials clarified after Flores saw that initial letter. Still, Flores is feeling increasing pressure to clear out.

Pieri's attorney John Moot says it's unfair to cast the developer as Goliath to Flores' David, as some in the community see him. Those people, Moot said, are against the project and may be using Flores as a "pawn" to block it.

The debate over Españada is just beginning. Supporters argue it is needed to jump-start revitalization on the west side. Opponents say the planned 15-story towers are too high and will bring too much traffic to already congested roads.

The City Council was scheduled to vote on Españada this month. But council members decided to wait until after the general plan update is done.

That update, expected in March, will allow for high-density residential development where the proj-ect is proposed. Currently, the project would require a zoning change before it could be built.

Pieri still needs to acquire some of the land for the 4.2-acre project at the northeast corner of H Street and Fourth Avenue. He has bought or is about to buy most of the property for the initial stages of construction.

All the properties except one – Flores' – are in Chula Vista's redevelopment area. In a redevelopment area the city has the authority to use eminent domain – pay market value for the land and relocation expenses – but it is often used as a last resort and needs to pass legal standards.

Along with Flores, the owner of a 28-unit apartment complex on H Street has said he does not want to sell. The complex, however, is more vulnerable because it's in the city's redevelopment area.

Fair treatment?
From the start, Flores said he has not been treated fairly. About eight months ago, Flores said he started to receive letters from Pieri's Mountain West real estate company with offers to buy the property. When he didn't respond, a Mountain West representative started showing up at his home.

"One time, my dad kicked him out," Alex Flores said.

The first offer from Pieri, Alex Flores said, was for $400,000. The offers have since increased to more than $700,000. He said Pieri also has offered alternative properties – some smaller than the one his father owns.

Francisco Flores, through his son, said he countered with a $2.5 million selling price, with the intention of halting Pieri's efforts.

"I don't want to sell," Flores said. "We're established."

Flores, who speaks predominantly Spanish, said that early on, Mountain West representative Nick Ross talked about the city's ability to use eminent domain. Flores said Ross gave him a copy of the Feb. 9 letter from the city to Pieri discussing the Españada project. It detailed the process by which the city could condemn properties for the project.

Ross also sent Flores a letter in May stating that eminent domain may be used to acquire properties "required" for Españada. It then stated, "Your property is one that is required for the project and for that reason I have made efforts on numerous occasions to make you aware of the project, and have made offers to you for the purchase of your property," Ross wrote.

Flores' fear mounted when, in June, the city's Community Development Department sent him a letter stating that his property was in Chula Vista's redevelopment area and that the Españada project had been proposed in that location. Two days later, city officials sent him a clarification letter, saying they had made a mistake.

Flores took his concerns to the Planning Commission at its Sept. 22 meeting. By then, members of Crossroads II, a community activist group that voiced some objections about the Españada project, had been helping him. They set up meetings with city officials for him and read over the letters he had received.

"They were intimidating him with the use of eminent domain," said Gerald Scott, a member of Crossroads II.

Moot, Pieri's attorney and a former councilman, said the letters to Flores never actually stated that his property could be taken by eminent domain. But, he said, he did recommend that Flores "talk to an attorney who specializes in eminent domain."

'Critical issue'
Don Kramer, the project manager for Españada, said the city is looking at ways to acquire the Flores property. In October, Kramer sent an e-mail to Ken Lee, a community development specialist for the city, asking if city officials had discussed expanding the redevelopment area.

"This is a critical issue as it impacts the Flores property on Roosevelt Street, as well as future projects under consideration," Kramer wrote.

However, Lee and other city officials said they are not currently looking at expanding the redevelopment area, or acquiring the Flores property.

"This is between Mr. Flores and Mr. Pieri," said Dana Smith, assistant director of community development.

Moot said Pieri is still trying to buy the properties. Property negotiations for Gateway, an upscale office and retail complex next to the proposed Españada site, were more difficult, Moot said.

In the end, Moot said, Pieri acquired the needed land privately. Moot said in most cases property owners fare better dealing with a private buyer than going through eminent domain.

"We're quite confident and willing to pay more than fair market value," he said of the current holdouts.

If Pieri can't acquire the Flores property, Moot said, the project will be redesigned. Under the current plans, Pieri wants to build town houses where the Flores property is.

Still, Moot said, his client is committed to trying to negotiate with Flores.

But Flores is firm. He said he has his own plans for the property he bought 11 years ago for $213,000. He has done improvements over the years and plans to do more.

"My dad doesn't want to sell," Alex Flores said. "We like the area."

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