By Jim Herron Zamora
Last week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling approving a Connecticut city's plan to take private land by eminent domain may seem far away.
But to John Revelli, whose family has operated a tire shop near downtown Oakland for decades, the implications hit home on Friday.
A team of contractors hired by the city of Oakland packed the contents of his small auto shop in a moving van and evicted Revelli from the property his family has owned since 1949.
"I have the perfect location; my customers who work downtown can drop off their cars and walk back here," said Revelli, 65, pointing at the nearby high- rises. "The city is taking it all away from me to give someone else. It's not fair."
The city of Oakland, using eminent domain, seized Revelli Tire and the adjacent property, owner-operated Autohouse, on 20th Street between Telegraph and San Pablo avenues on Friday and evicted the longtime property owners, who have refused to sell to clear the way for a large housing development.
The U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision last week paved the way for local governments to buy out unwilling property owners, demolish homes and businesses, and turn that land over to new owners for development. Last week's ruling expanded on earlier decisions that allowed agencies to take property only if it is considered "blighted" or run-down.
"The city thinks I cause 'economic blight' because I don't produce enough tax revenue," Revelli said. "We thought we'd win, but the Supreme Court took away my last chance."
The two properties, which total 6,500 square feet, were being forced to move or sell because their businesses are on a larger section of land that is slated for the Uptown Project, a city-subsidized real estate development that is expected to include nearly 1,200 apartments and condominiums.
The project's wedge-shaped lot, just west of the 19th Street BART Station, includes several blocks roughly bounded by 20th Street, 17th Street, Telegraph Avenue and San Pablo Avenue.
Both Revelli Tire and Autohouse, owned and operated by Tony Fung, are on the northern edge of the project in the 400 block of 20th Street, which is also called Thomas L. Berkley Way.
The eviction came as no surprise to Revelli and Fung. The city has designated their block as a redevelopment area for about 20 years. Before approving the Uptown Project last year, the city considered putting in a shopping mall, then an arena for the Golden State Warriors and later a ballpark for the Oakland Athletics.
The decision to build market-rate housing on the site, subsidized by $61 million in city redevelopment funds, is the keystone in Mayor Jerry Brown's plan to revitalize downtown Oakland by putting in homes for 10,000 new residents there.
"This is the part of redevelopment everyone hates," said Hamid Gami, who is coordinating the relocation for Oakland's Community and Economic Development Agency.
"It's tough. They're good people. We've offered them fair compensation, and we hope to come to an agreement. But this is a really important new development. The city has been trying to do this for years. It's good for all of Oakland. It's going to be a great project."
Gami said he hopes to work out a settlement with Revelli and Fung.
The business owners said they clung to hopes that the eminent domain decision might be overturned in court or that they could persuade the city to build the project and leave them alone.
"All those new residents will need someone to work on their cars," said Revelli, who has been working in the shop since he was in third grade helping his dad and uncle. "I don't want their money. I don't want to move. I just want to work right here."
Most of the other businesses closed their doors and left in the past two years. The only other holdout, Chef Edward's Barbeque, is expected to reopen about a block and a half away.
Fung and Revelli said the money offered by the city, about $100 per square foot plus relocation costs, was insufficient, saying the real estate boom has priced them out of nearby properties. They own their properties outright and have operated with low overhead.
"John works alone; I have one technician working with me that's it," said Fung, who bought his 2,500-square-foot shop in 1993. "The cost of buying or leasing a new site is prohibitive. The money the city offered me does not cover it."
Revelli, who has worked alone for the past 35 years, said no other location is as good as what he is losing.
"My customers are mainly women who work in the offices downtown. They can take BART if they have to leave their cars overnight," Revelli said. "There's really no equivalent location around here."
Both men said Friday that losing their businesses was like losing a piece of themselves.
"I've worked here full time since 1959, and I looked forward to coming to work every day," Revelli said. "I'm not ready to retire, but the city forced me into this. I don't have many options."
Fung, who is in his late 40s and raising his children, said retirement is not an option.
"I'm an immigrant from China, and this has been the fulfillment of my American dream," Fung said. "I worked hard. I played by the rules. But now it's all gone. I've got to start all over."
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