Eminent domain in White Plains urged: (Westchester NY) Journal News, 4/17/05

By Susan Elan

A White Plains councilman wants city officials to use the power of eminent domain to clear a downtown commercial property for construction of 42 units of affordable housing.

"The use of eminent domain would fulfill two purposes," Councilman Robert Greer said Friday. "It would help affordable housing and create open space in the downtown."

But several other council members shied away from the idea of seizing land from a private property owner even if it serves "a legitimate public purpose," as Greer maintains.

Greer's proposal involves property at 185-187 Main St. adjacent to a $350 million hotel, residential and retail complex, called Renaissance Square, that developer Louis Cappelli is building.

City officials will hold a public hearing Thursday on Cappelli's plan for affordable housing, as well as a request by him to increase the height of his approved Renaissance Square residential towers at 221 Main St. To sweeten his appeal for a height increase from 350 feet to 400 feet, or about 40 stories, Cappelli has pledged to give $1.5 million to the city's affordable housing fund in addition to building 42 affordable units, as required by the city.

Initially, Cappelli proposed constructing the units next door to Renaissance Square. But he was unable to reach a deal with Stanley Drucker, owner of the building at 185-187 Main St. Drucker declined to comment.

Cappelli then proposed construction on property he owns at 240 Main St., home for more than two decades to a popular lunch spot called the Corner Nook Cafe.

That suggestion incensed rival developer Martin Ginsburg, who wants to construct a $100 million luxury condominium complex at 250 Main St. Ginsburg has been fighting Cappelli in court over ownership of 240 Main St.

Ginsburg argues that the property should be turned into open space to enhance the City Center Plaza.

Greer's call for the use of eminent domain at 185-187 Main St. supports Ginsburg's contention that the city would gain by opening up the City Center Plaza without sacrificing affordable housing.

"We have the opportunity for a very nice public plaza at the City Center," Greer said. "Putting affordable housing there would wreck that."

Mayor Joseph Delfino called Greer's plan "an interesting proposition."

But Delfino added, "It raises a number of procedural and legal issues that would have to be addressed. Naturally, the Cappelli organization is eager to get their approvals for financing. I would hope this would not delay or stall the process."

Cappelli did not return calls for comment.

Council President Thomas Roach and Councilwoman Rita Malmud said they were reluctant to impose eminent domain in this situation.

"In this case, it would be a hostile use of this power," Malmud said.

Jack Harrington had opposed Cappelli's call to use eminent domain to remove the Bar Building at 199 Main St. to make way for his Renaissance Square complex. But Harrington, a former member of the city's Conservation Board and a former president of the White Plains Historical Society, said he would not necessarily oppose the seizure of land under the scenario suggested by Greer.

That property, site of the Karamba Cafe Restaurant, has no historic value, Harrington said. The Bar Building preservation campaign won national historic recognition for the 1926 Gothic and art deco structure.

Roach said the hearing Thursday at City Hall will tackle multiple facets of the affordable housing issue, including price.

"I don't call it affordable housing if it costs $1,800 or $2,000 a month," Roach said.

The Journal News: www.thejournalnews.com