Renewal vs. displacement weighs on Trenton — The (Trenton NJ) Times, 12/13/04

By Albert Raboteau

Alberta Thompson doesn't want to leave the two-story city row home where she has lived 49 years and raised nine children.

She has no choice.

The city plans to knock down all the houses left on her street, Titus Avenue, along with one block of Pennington Avenue, to make way for 15 new houses officials hope will each fetch $90,000, nearly twice what Thompson stands to receive in compensation.

"I will be hating to move, but when they say you have to, there's nothing you can do, especially when you're poor," said the 84-year-old grandmother, who as of late last week had agreed to a price but was still waiting to close her deal with the city.

For years, city officials have been buying up properties and knocking them down to make way for new housing developments. Their goal is to revive blighted neighborhoods and help a greater number of people achieve the American dream of prosperity by owning quality homes.

Ironically, in their effort to promote ownership, city officials sometimes force longtime homeowners such as Thompson to sell under threat of condemnation.

For important renewal projects to be possible in a crowded city, "You have to be willing to move people," said Dennis Gonzalez, assistant city business administrator. "We don't have 35 square miles of property to recreate our town center somewhere else."

Officials expect to pay Thompson up to $15,000 relocation assistance, on top of $32,000 for her 113-year-old home.

"We want to be fair and compassionate and I believe we are, and I also believe that the greater good will certainly be served in that area when you have more homeownership," said Mayor Douglas H. Palmer.

But being forced to move did not sit well with Thompson and her family.

"It's the memory thing," said her grandson, Derrick Smith. "You can't put a price tag on that."

The prospect of residents being forced to sell their homes recently generated controversy in the city's South Ward, where developers wanted to knock down 10 blocks to make way for 350 new homes, stores and 120 apartments.

The new community would have been called Village Centre. Amid an outcry by opponents, Palmer disavowed the project, which is no longer expected to be built.

Palmer said he will devise a new plan for the region that will try to avoid displacing so many people or knocking down what buildings can realistically be preserved.

Meanwhile, Thompson's neighborhood, near the Battle Monument in the city's North Ward, has already been radically remade.

Titus Avenue is a dead-end street between two relatively new housing developments: Monument Crossing and North Willow Green. The latter was built by the same developers who sought to create Village Centre.

"The idea is to make that area near the Battle Monument larger and larger," Gonzalez said. "There is Monument Crossing and North Willow Green, and the idea is for the stuff in between to be done as well."

The area is now pointed to with pride by city officials, a far cry from when it was notorious for drugs and prostitution and the Battle Monument was derisively nicknamed "Bottle Monument" for the broken glass at its base.

Governments forcing people to sell their property to make way for developments, whether highways, schools or even housing complexes, is nothing new. But condemning property to help economic development projects, as opposed to public works projects, is drawing increasing criticism.

Several such projects in New Jersey have sparked fierce opposition. They include plans to knock down hundreds of homes in the Mount Holly Gardens community and to remake Camden's Cramer Hill neighborhood.

On the national level, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the arguments of Susette Kelo, a New London, Conn., homeowner who is challenging her town's attempt to force her to sell her home to make way for new development along the Thames River.

South Jersey Legal Services, which filed suits against both Camden and Mount Holly over redevelopments, has filed a friend-of-the court brief on Kelo's behalf.

According to the Institute for Justice, the Libertarian public interest law firm that petitioned the Supreme Court in the Kelo case, local governments across the country are abusing eminent-domain law to transfer property to developers in order to generate more tax revenue from what is built than what was there before.

An Institute report published last year said that nationwide, between 1997 and 2002, governments took or threatened to take more than 10,000 properties to support economic development projects.

The Institute "probably has the most comprehensive numbers of what's going on across the country," said Tim Duggan, a lawyer with Lawrence-based Stark & Stark.

In eminent-domain proceedings, governments and property owners submit competing appraisals to a judge, who then decides the value of the property. Property owners cannot refuse to sell for that price.

Duggan said that in the past couple years he has represented about 15 clients, including Thompson, against the state capital in cases where eminent domain has been used or threatened.

"It may not be the nicest part of town, but you can't just start pulling property from people because you think something better should go there," Duggan said. "That's just flat out not right."

City officials had no statistics readily available indicating the number of private properties they have acquired in recent years either through or with the threat of eminent domain.

In the Kelo case, the Institute for Justice hopes the Supreme Court will clarify and put new limits on what constitutes a "public use," which is the vague criterion that projects have to meet if eminent domain is to be allowed, said Institute attorney Bert Gall.

"Everyone's home could make more tax dollars if turned into a business, and every small business could generate more tax dollars if transformed into a big-box store," Gall said. "A line has to be drawn."

Wendell Pritchett, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor who specializes in property law, said cities often have abused their redevelopment power but still should not have that power broadly curtailed by the Supreme Court.

"It is very difficult to collect the kind of property that is needed for modern redevelopment without use of eminent domain," Pritchett said. "If that power was weakened, I do think it would be a problem for many cities."

Eminent domain's supporters said governments need that option or redevelopment efforts would be impossible because property owners would block projects until paid huge "ransoms."

"There's a lot of opportunists out there. There's guys that buy into redevelopment areas specifically to be the thorn in the side of the developer and get ransom money," said David Barry, president of Hoboken-based Applied Development Co., a private company involved in developing Long Branch's seaside, where attempts to use eminent domain have caused an uproar.

If New Jersey's local governments could not force property sales when necessary, fewer new homes would be built in cities, more would wind up in rural areas and sprawl would worsen, Barry said.

Barry also said eminent domain tends to get one-sided news coverage that focuses on the displaced rather than the greater good that projects bring, including ridding areas of landlords who don't care for their properties.

"It's really easy to single out the one case where a quiet little old lady who's been living there 40 years has her house taken," Barry said. Make that 47 years in the case of Gertrude Campbell, Alberta Thompson's 87-year-old neighbor. Campbell said she refused three times when pressed by the city to sell, before giving in when told she would be bought out regardless.

The city bought Campbell's home for $20,000 in September. It was assessed at $33,000 for tax purposes.

On Monday, Campbell moved to a nearby apartment complex for seniors located not far from her longtime home on Titus Avenue.

Campbell said the city's initial offer to her was $17,000 and that she was less bothered by having to move than by having been paid less than she paid for the house in 1957.

"I really didn't think they done fair, (but) I'm 87 years old and don't need headaches," Campbell said.

A developer has not been named for the project on Titus and Pennington avenues. Construction is expected to begin by summer.

Gonzalez said the city tries to force people to sell properties as infrequently as possible.

"We don't do it haphazardly," Gonzalez continued. "We don't go out to hurt people, and we make a sincere attempt to work with the people who are displaced to find them a better situation."

Campbell's daughter, Janet L. Campbell, said the family is happy she had found a new place to live. But they resent that she was forced into that decision.

"I thought it was my house," Gertrude Campbell said while standing in her former doorway just a few days before her move. "I thought that when you keep it up, it's yours. But I guess not - when they want it."

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