Council members wary of eminent domain: (Lincoln NE) Journal Star, 2/28/05

By Deena Winter

The future of an east downtown block is now in the City Council's hands.
Developer John Q. Hammons has proposed building a hotel on this Lincoln block, bounded by P and Q and 17th and 18th streets.

Do council members vote Monday to approve redeveloping the block, likely paving the way for a $16 million hotel the mayor said will generate an extra $485,000 in tax revenue per year?

Or do they refuse to give city officials the power to evict existing property owners, possibly derailing the fast-tracked hotel plan?

They appear to want it both ways.

They may have to choose.

The hotel plan likely would die if the council approves redeveloping the block but doesn't arm city officials with eminent domain, said Dallas McGee of the city's Urban Development Department.

"The council could do that, but I believe if they did that it would probably kill the project," he said. "We do need the ability to use eminent domain in order to assemble the block. Because without it we would not be able to acquire the property, and neither would a developer."

Because the property isn't for sale, he said, it would be difficult to negotiate a price with the owners.

The council will have a public hearing Monday and likely vote on whether to redevelop the block, now home to a convenience store, restaurant, car lot, repair shop and parking lot.

Council members were generally supportive of the hotel when interviewed Friday. But they also said they didn't want business owners hurt in the process.

Here's where they stood days before the hearing:
  • Jon Camp senses the council supports the hotel, he said, but is reluctant to authorize eminent domain. Although he is not sure how he'll vote yet, he said, one thing is certain: "I'm going to ask a lot of questions."

  • A council member known for asking questions, Jonathan Cook, said he wants the property owners treated fairly.

    "I'm not sure that's happening," he said.

    He said developer John Q. Hammons — whose public company owns 44 hotels and manages another 14 — should negotiate directly with property owners and not expect the city to assume that role.

    "It's always easy for somebody who wants to build something to have the government do the dirty work," he said. "I think we need to consider this more carefully and not be starry-eyed."

    He also questions whether the hotel would reap new revenue or siphon it from existing hotels.

    "You can do a cost-benefit analysis (to justify) anything the government wants to do," he said.

  • Terry Werner said the hotel would be good for Lincoln, but he wants the city to take care of existing businesses.

    "I think we're just going to have to listen to public testimony and make a tough, tough decision," he said. "I support the project but my goal is to make sure the property owners are taken care of."

  • Annette McRoy said she's still wrestling with the proposal. "I hope we can come to an agreement with these property owners without using eminent domain. I want to treat everyone fairly if we do this."

  • Patte Newman is leaning against authorizing eminent domain. She said the block is not like the vacant lots near 48th and O streets, an eyesore that property owners haven't cleaned up.

    "Generally what I've been hearing from everyone is this is absolutely morally wrong and un-American," she said. "This community respects local business owners."

  • Ken Svoboda supports the hotel proposal, he said, and he'll listen to both sides of the debate. But he opposes the use of eminent domain — especially because the project is on a fast track to meet Hammons' ambitious timeline. He fears that as deadlines loom, the city would resort to condemning the property.

    He likely would support a plan allowing the city to proceed without the eminent domain authorization.

  • The Journal Star was unable to reach the only remaining member, Glenn Friendt.

The Journal Star: www.journalstar.com