Shop owner gets to stay put: St Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, 5/26/05

By Jake Wagman

A St. Louis auto mechanic whose repair shop was targeted for acquisition to make way for a "Media Box" will get to keep his land after all.

The board of directors for Grand Center, the development agency that presides over the cultural district of the same name, voted Thursday to drop its eminent domain suit against Gentle "Jim" Day, owner of Royal Auto Repair.

"It's a very, very happy day in my life," Day, 58, said from his shop.

For 20 years, Day made his $1,222 monthly mortgage payment. He took title to the land last year. By then, however, he was mired in a court dispute with Grand Center over whether he should be forced to sell so the agency could add an artistic attraction to the area around Grand Boulevard in midtown.

Day's plight became public this year. And Day, the son of Arkansas sharecroppers, received an outpouring of support from opponents of eminent domain. On Thursday, a table near his cluttered office at the repair shop bore news clippings about his eminent domain fight and contact information for the local alderman.

Eminent domain is the power granted in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution that allows local governments to acquire private property for public benefit.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a Connecticut case that could curtail that right, potentially affecting several projects in the St. Louis region and hundreds nationwide.

Day's situation has parallels to the circumstances surrounding Kelo v. New London, Conn., which questions whether eminent domain can be used as a tool for economic development.

In Day's case, that power went to Grand Center, a nonprofit organization run by former St. Louis Mayor Vincent Schoemehl.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen three years ago named Grand Center as the "master developer" of a swatch of land near St. Louis University, roughly bordered by Forest Park Avenue and Delmar Boulevard. That gave the agency broad control over land use, including the ability to dispense tax incentives, approve or reject building designs and to acquire land.

Schoemehl wanted to see Day's triangle of land between Spring Avenue and Olive Street turned over to a private developer.

Envisioned was a building with a design studio and residential units that would have some sort of "multimedia component," thus dubbed a Media Box.

But on Thursday, Schoemehl said the Grand Center board unanimously followed his recommendation to drop the eminent domain suit against Day. Other Grand Center sites will be scouted for the proposed building, he said.

Schoemehl had been under political and public pressure to reach an amicable settlement with Day after the Post-Dispatch reported the dispute in February. Among those seeking a resolution was the alderman in the ward, Mike McMillan, and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr.

Schoemehl would not say whether he would use eminent domain in future land deals.

"I don't have an opinion on that," Schoemehl said.

St Louis Post-Dispatch: www.stltoday.com