2/13/2005

A Familiar Fight: New London (CT) Day, 2/13/05

From New London To Newark And Beyond, Residents Oppose Government's Use Of Eminent Domain

By Kate Moran

In the two blocks between her pale yellow house and the McDonald's where she sometimes buys dinner, Maribel Cruz passes a liquor store, a laundromat that doubles as a lottery vendor and a row of stucco houses that fetched a handsome price when a developer built them a few years ago.

Houses like these are flying up all around Newark as real estate prices in Manhattan, 12 miles to the east, have forced the middle class to colonize this once declining city. Locals like to call them Bayonne bungalows after the flimsy housing common in a nearby blue-collar city, and Cruz sniffs at the suggestion that they outshine the sturdy brick place she and her husband, Robert, bought nine years ago with the help of the G.I. bill.

These bungalows are one sign that gentrification has finally alighted on the neighborhood around Mulberry Street, an area that once held two major factories but fell into an afterlife of drugs and decline when they closed two decades ago. To speed along the revival, the city of Newark, like New London before it, is preparing to use its powers of eminent domain.

Last fall the city drew a bulls-eye over 13 acres that radiate east and west of Mulberry Street, branding them blighted and in need of redevelopment. The blight label gives the city a pass to condemn private property, including the Cruz house, the liquor store and the laundromat, and hand it to a developer who promises to turn around the neighborhood.

The developers in this case are Metro Homes, a company based in Hoboken, N.J., and the Newark Redevelopment Corp., a private company headed by Emilio Farina, a former aide to a city councilor and the moving force behind the bungalows that Cruz finds so offensive. They want to build 2,000 condominiums and 182,000 square feet of retail space that will feed off a new downtown hockey arena and appeal to the young but upwardly mobile population now getting priced out of New York.

Those who would lose out are residents like Cruz, who was born in the Mulberry Street area and persevered through its decline. She wants to stay now that property values are ticking up thanks to the influence of a prosperous Portuguese enclave just across the railroad tracks.

But where Cruz sees a resurgent neighborhood, the city sees houses and small businesses drizzled haphazardly among prairies of asphalt. Parking lots that serve the nearby post office and federal courthouse cover 60 percent of the neighborhood — an amount city officials say is much too high so close to the downtown business and arts district.

Thus Newark begins the debate that has roiled New London for seven years, as City Hall, in the name of progress and a stronger tax base, tries to take a neighborhood that might not be swanky, but where residents are comfortable and want to stay.

This debate takes on a particular ferocity in neighborhoods like Mulberry Street in Newark and Fort Trumbull in New London, with their mix of retirees who are scared of leaving and young families who have made sacrifices to buy their modest first homes. “We went through a lot of struggles to get this house,” the 35-year-old Cruz says of her yellow brick walkup on East Kinney Street.

The residents and business-owners in the Newark area are watching closely to see whether the U.S. Supreme Court will shore up the rights of private-property owners when it hears the Fort Trumbull case on Feb. 22. In the meantime, the Mulberry Street Coalition has started a Web site, hired an attorney and filed a suit seeking to overturn the city's blight designation.

“I know what's going on here is not legal by the Constitution,” said George Mytrowitz, owner of an auto body shop and the spokesman for the coalition. “We're going to win — the question is how much time it will take and how much it's going to cost.”

The trouble for Mytrowitz and the others is that the city's effort to take their property is, in fact, legal under both state redevelopment law and a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case called Berman v. Parker.

That year, the court vastly expanded the government's right under the Fifth Amendment to seize property for a “public use” as long as it paid “just compensation” to the owner. Public use was previously a narrow rubric that included the building of highways, railroads and schools, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that the clearing of slums and blight also benefits the public, even if the government turns the property over to a private developer.

Scores of cities like Newark have since relied on the federal precedent to condemn houses, small businesses and sometimes entire neighborhoods to improve neighborhoods or broaden the tax base. A study published by the Institute for Justice, the libertarian law firm that represents the Fort Trumbull homeowners, found that governments around the country seized more than 10,000 properties between 1998 and 2002 and transferred them to private developers.

The city of Baltimore provoked a lawsuit in December when it condemned six businesses in an area called the Triangle where it wants to create a mixed-income development of houses and apartments. In Norwood, Ohio, a developer bankrolled an urban-renewal study that gives the city the power to remove a few stubborn residents who do not want to vacate their houses for a shopping complex. Similar cases have sprouted from Minnesota to Utah to California, where Culver City has declared two trailer parks blighted and chosen a developer that could erect townhouses in their place.

The city of New London opened a new frontier in eminent domain law in the fall of 2000, when it condemned 15 properties on the Fort Trumbull peninsula to make way for a hotel, offices and upscale housing that would generate jobs and higher tax revenue.

When it heads to the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 22, the Kelo v. New London case will test whether governments can take private property not for a public-works project and not to remove blight but to promote the general-public benefits that arise from economic development.

John P. Inglesino, the attorney for the Mulberry Street developer, is quick to point out that Newark's Municipal Council followed federal precedent when it hired a consultant to study the Mulberry Street area before voting last November to declare it blighted. New London, he says, never made that claim about Fort Trumbull.

“The difference between Mulberry Street and the Kelo case can be summed up in one word: blight,” Inglesino said. “The condemnation of blight is recognized as a legitimate public purpose. Frankly, it's an open question whether Kelo will pass constitutional muster.”

But in the suit their attorney filed in December, the Mulberry Street owners allege the city cobbled together a bogus blight designation for the benefit of the developers, who funneled thousands of dollars in campaign donations to Mayor Sharpe James and several Municipal Council members. They note the city planning board rejected the blight label in May 2003, only to revive it the following year after the flood of campaign contributions.

Their description of the neighborhood as a colony of well-kept houses, well-used parking lots and viable businesses, including the New Jersey Law Journal and Market Body Works, diverges sharply from the blight study commissioned by the city, which says the desolate stretches of asphalt hollow out what should be a dense and vital urban center.

The disagreement over whether blight is the unfortunate truth about Mulberry Street or simply a trump card for the developer is where eminent-domain law gets complicated. The Kelo case could give governments the ability to bypass the thorny blight question entirely by giving them the right to take property for economic development. Or it could allow a yellow brick walkup in Newark to stand.

In the living room of that yellow walkup hangs a gallery of photographs that highlight the work Robert Cruz, 49, performs as a security guard at City Hall. The centerpiece of the display shows Cruz posing with the mayor of Newark, a map of the city held between them, with various certificates honoring him as employee of the month in constellation around it.

These tokens of civic pride form an ironic backdrop to the conversation flowing between Cruz and his wife, Maribel, who are shocked that the city that cuts his paycheck and honors him with awards would also take their house to make way for a $550 million condominium project.

“We'd leave Newark,” Maribel Cruz says, when asked where they would go if they lose the house. “This hurts. We never thought the city administration would go against the people.”

Her husband has taken off his jacket with the city of Newark badge on the sleeve and is standing in the kitchen doorway in his white undershirt. “Even if you work for the city, you don't get any protection,” he says. Robert and Maribel Cruz have showed up at council meetings to protest the redevelopment of their neighborhood, but they have not joined the 22 property owners who banded together to hire an attorney to fight it in court. They cannot afford the legal fees even if they win, and the cost would be dire if they lose.

“It's a gamble, and I don't want to play the lottery,” Maribel Cruz says. Their house, three stories high and flanked on each side by a vacant lot and a chain-link fence, is typical of the neighborhood. Though well-maintained, it looks the interloper among the empty lots and the nearby garage and liquor store. It is a row house without a row, a vestige of better times.

When the city declared the area blighted, it homed in on the random, syncopated patterns created when houses are dropped among blank lots and businesses. The neighborhood has 24 houses in all, 21 of them owner-occupied, blended among 35 commercial buildings on streets that alternately feel desolate and healthy. The barbed wire around the parking lots has a strange resonance with the grapevines, bare and gnarled in winter, that Portuguese residents have trellised around their fences for making wine.

If there is an anchor to the neighborhood, it is the Pick-It Laundromat and adjacent bodega the Criado family has operated on Mulberry Street since 1971. Residents filed in one recent day to buy lottery tickets and cigarettes from owner Jose Criado, stationed behind a Plexiglas window. But farther north there is little in the way of business other than a new Popeye's franchise and the offices of the New Jersey Law Journal.

Dennis E. Gale, a professor of political science and public administration at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, guesses that Mulberry Street's lack of a strong neighborhood epoxy — the kind of cohesiveness so apparent in the thriving Portuguese community a few blocks to the east — made it vulnerable to the attentions of City Hall.

“The attitude of most city agencies towards a solid residential neighborhood is, we won't go in there and alienate homeowners,” Gale says. “But this was considered part of the downtown without a strong neighborhood identity. I think what's happened is that the owners have since coalesced. They're convinced there's a stronger network there.”

Indignation with City Hall has made a neighborhood out of the laundromat and the auto body shop — separated by a block of asphalt — and out of the immigration offices, universal church, scatterings of row houses and the six-family apartment building that Manuel Mateiro built in 1977 so his six children would always have a place to go.

The oldest among them is Market Body Works, founded by the Mytrowitz family as a blacksmith shop in 1913. The business moved to its current location on McCarter Highway, the eastern boundary of the redevelopment area, in 1941, and owner George Mytrowitz likes to point out it has survived two world wars, the race riots of the 1960s and Newark's subsequent decline.

“Why can't I stay for the boom, too?” he asks. “My family stayed when everybody fled.”

While Mytrowitz gets angry about the money that has flowed from developer to city Hall, his defiance is a matter of practicality as well as principle. He does not want to move his business because it has valuable highway frontage and is within walking distance of Penn Station, where his customers can hop a train after dropping off their car for service.

This proximity to the train station, the huge international airport, the downtown business district and, most importantly, the arena the New Jersey Devils hockey team has agreed to build just north of Mulberry Street has also made the neighborhood prime real estate in the minds of city officials.

City planners see the area as a fulcrum between the Ironbound district — the robust Portuguese neighborhood that city historian Charles F. Cummings calls “Newark's Greenwich Village” — and the business area on Broad Street where City Hall towers among discount shoe stores and jewelry brokers. They say the condominium project could give a huge boost to the entire area.

Newark has hemorrhaged population since the race riots erupted in the 1960s; its size is down from roughly 400,000 to 274,000 residents. As housing prices bolt upward in nearby Hoboken and Jersey City, city officials see a chance to repopulate the area they call the “downtown core” with the middle class that once gravitated toward the suburbs.

A neighborhood checkered with parking lots, where the housing density is only 10 units per acre, strikes them as an obvious target for redevelopment. “Downtown struggles to stay alive after 5 p.m. We have a poor availability of good housing choices to recruit new business,” says Richard A. Monteilh, the city business administrator. “This is a blighted area that makes poor use of our precious little land. The city has a right to survive.”

Like New London, which plays host to three colleges and a hospital, Newark has an inordinate amount of tax-exempt property: four colleges, acres of parking lots, state highways, and cultural venues such as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The condominiums proposed for Mulberry Street would swell the area's tax output to $6 million annually, up from the $270,000 it generated in 2003.

“Optimizing our available land is the only way to remain financially stable,” Monteilh says.

Like New London, Newark has a history of failed redevelopment projects, and there are some like Gale, the Rutgers University professor, who are dubious that the hockey arena that has generated such hoopla in Newark will do much to turn around the neighborhoods.

The city is just now tearing down the Renaissance Mall, the shopping center not far from City Hall that became a monument to squandered plans when its developer ran out of money to finish it in the late 1980s.

The new arena was initially supposed to be the home of the Devils and the New Jersey Nets, the basketball team that has since announced a move to Brooklyn.

Given the financial troubles of the National Hockey League and the lack of a hockey following in Newark — Gale calls it a basketball and football town — he can see why fierce opposition has taken root in nearby Mulberry Street.

“There isn't any sort of floodtide of support for building an arena in Newark,” says Gale, who conducted a countywide survey for a book he is writing on New York and northern New Jersey. “If you ask in Newark, you get mixed results.

People can't figure out what the link is between the Newark arena complex and the quality of life in the neighborhoods.”

The residents caught in the trough of progress are certainly skeptical. Elly Martins, who lives in the basement apartment of the six-family building on Walnut Street her father built in 1977, cannot understand why the city would want to replace her mixed neighborhood with a bland and uniform condominium development.
“What, is it going to be preppy?” says Martins, one of many in the area who speaks fluently in English and Portuguese.

Like many of her neighbors, Martins is distressed that the city would so casually displace the residents who struggled to buy houses in the area before it became so valuable.

“I saw them bust their butts to get where they got, and now somebody is going to come in and tell them they can't live here anymore?” Martins asks. Augusto Amador represents the city's East Ward on the Municipal Council. He has accepted donations from the developers but does not believe the longtime residents, especially the elderly who have paid off their mortgages, should be forced out by their project. He was one of three among nine council members to vote against the proposed redevelopment.

“The perception that Newark is available to developers at any cost has to change,” Amador says. “Yes, Newark is hot, but we should be concerned about implementing the right kind of development, instead of displacing people who have been there for 30 or 40 years.”


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