National City issue up for vote Tuesday: San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune, 2/5/05

By Tanya Sierra

[National City CA] officials want to double the area where they can use their eminent domain authority, an option that might be key to their quest to revitalize the city with new homes and retail businesses.

In a joint meeting Tuesday, the Community Development Commission – made up of City Council members – will vote whether to expand the eminent domain area from National City Boulevard and the Harbor District to include Highland Avenue, the city's west side, East Plaza Boulevard, parts of the 8th Street corridor and parts of 30th Street and Sweetwater Road.

Several residents have spoken against expanding the city's eminent domain authority, which would ultimately allow the city to take over certain properties by court order if landowners do not want to sell their properties for redevelopment.

The city can use eminent domain to obtain property within its redevelopment area. Those properties include those zoned for commercial or industrial use and all vacant or abandoned properties regardless of their zoning designation, said City Attorney George Eiser.

Residential property will not be targeted, he said.

City officials seldom reach the point where a court order is necessary. Instead, they try to negotiate until the owner sells, said redevelopment director Ben Martinez.

Eminent domain authority lasts 12 years, then expires. If the expansion is successful Tuesday, the city can use eminent domain for another 12 years where it is already allowed and will add the new area for 12 years, as well.

When the proposal was first announced, about 250 residents showed up at city meetings in October and November to speak against it. They were concerned that with so much development, National City would lose its small-town feel and that small businesses would be forced out.

Martinez said previously, in response to those concerns, that "there are winners and losers in redevelopment," but he would "try to limit the losers" to businesses that don't fit with the city's plans to bring in more retail and improve its image.

The Constellation Property Group, for example, has offered to invest $130 million in a high-rise condominium and retail project on National City Boulevard between 11th and 12th streets.

The development would oust businesses on that block, including Lourdes Family Restaurant, the first Filipino restaurant in National City, according to owner Lourdes Barrera.

After 33 years in the same building, Barrera said she is negotiating with Constellation to reopen her business in the retail space on the first floor of the proposed 21-story building.

"As long as it's fair, I'm all for beautifying National City," she said. "It's time. For so long it's been stagnant."

Not everyone in the redevelopment area is as welcoming to developers. Some property owners have spoken at public meetings about being bothered by developers or their representatives who want to build on their property.

Daniel Ilko, who owns the property next to Lourdes restaurant, told city officials at a meeting this month that a real estate agent trying to acquire his land for Constellation harassed him and his family.

"They threatened us saying if we don't sell now, we'll lose the property," Ilko said during a Community Development Commission meeting. "They accosted my 9-year-old daughter."

Ilko wouldn't elaborate on his contact with Anthony Napoli, of Anthony Napoli Real Estate Group in Little Italy, who was representing Constellation. A message on Napoli's voice mail indicated he is out of the country, but representatives of Constellation said Napoli's behavior was not inappropriate.

"He was just trying to get the offers out," said Mark Astone, who is in charge of Constellation's marketing firm. "His intentions weren't to harass anyone. Two children answered the door with the maid. He just left the offer with the daughter. I don't think that's accosting."

City project manager Gerard Selby said Napoli's behavior was unprofessional.

"The behavior of the representative was overboard completely," Selby said at the meeting.

Barrera, who also dealt with Napoli, said she wasn't bothered by his approach.

"He has an attitude, but it didn't bother me because I threw back what he gave me," she said.

Condos in Constellation's project would sell for $400,000 to $750,000, according to a city report.

Tuesday's meeting is at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 1243 National City Blvd.

San Diego Union-Tribune: www.signonsandiego.com