By Jim Herron Zamora
An Oakland auto shop owner wants to save a business his family has owned since 1949. The owner of a dilapidated Art Deco theater in Alameda is resisting plans to replace it with a multiplex, while a 70-year-old man who wants to erect a "green" building in Santa Cruz is fighting city efforts to seize his vacant lot.
Those and other property battles in Northern California have gained new attention since the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision last month made it easier for local governments to force unwilling property owners to sell using eminent domain.
The decision, based on a Connecticut case in which a city wanted to tear down an older waterfront neighborhood and turn it over to a developer, makes it easier for cities and counties to help rebuild aging downtowns and construct projects such as BART transit villages. Emboldened by the high court's ruling, the agencies argue that economic development benefiting a region outweighs individual property rights.
But it has also led to a growing backlash and galvanized an odd coalition: Conservative property rights advocates see eminent domain as big government run amok, while liberals and minorities view it as a tool for powerful developers to tear up communities and bully the little guy.
"No one should have to worry about losing your home to some politically connected developer," said state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks. "There are 6,000 public agencies in California that now have the power to seize your home, pay you pennies on the dollar for it, and then give it to somebody else for their own personal gain and profit."
On Thursday, McClintock and state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter (Kern County), introduced a bill to prevent public agencies from taking land from one private owner and giving it to another for development purposes.
And conservative U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, is working with liberal urban representatives Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, and John Conyers of Michigan to deny federal funds to cities that use eminent domain to benefit private developers.
"It's kind of a strange coalition," Pombo said Friday. "But there is something about taking your property this way that makes lots of Americans angry. The reason that we have a Bill of Rights is to protect individuals from the majority."
If passed, the bills would stop projects in Alameda and Santa Cruz, and could force changes in Oakland and dozens of other cities.
Redevelopment is a process that allows cities to keep a bigger portion of future property tax revenues in a given area, which can amount to millions of dollars if businesses move in and new homes are built. That process has allowed San Francisco to rebuild much of the South of Market area and Emeryville to transform itself from an industrial slum to a regional shopping hub.
Cities with pending projects point out the long-term benefits of redevelopment. In Santa Cruz, the city has rebuilt much of downtown after the Loma Prieta earthquake devastated the area in 1989. In Alameda, city officials are using redevelopment to bring in new businesses, including what they hope will be the city's first multiplex theater.
Local government must declare the target zone to be blighted in order for it to become eligible for redevelopment. That once was relatively easy in many communities. Much of Oakland below Interstate 580, for example, has been a redevelopment area for decades.
But with property values skyrocketing in the Bay Area, many residents have become wary of redevelopment and panic at the idea of eminent domain.
"Redevelopment is good way to keep money in a community and fund improvements that we can't afford any other way," said Oakland City Councilwoman Jane Brunner, who has been meeting with skeptical residents and neighbors about plans to turn much of the North Oakland flatlands into a redevelopment area. "But I respect the concerns of people who worry about this. ... This is a discussion we need to have."
At a community meeting Wednesday, Brunner pointed out projects that redevelopment has funded in the city new development adjacent to the Fruitvale BART station and attractive new sidewalks and bike trails along Mandela Parkway in West Oakland.
In Oakland, many of the properties that the city has bought and resold to developers in the past were nearly abandoned structures or buildings that were covered with graffiti.
But on July 1, John Revelli and Tony Fung were evicted from their profitable but small owner-operated auto repair shops near the 19th Street BART station to make way for the Uptown Project, which is expected to include nearly 1,200 apartments and condominiums. The development, which is receiving a $61 million public subsidy, is the centerpiece of Mayor Jerry Brown's plan to bring 10,000 more residents to downtown Oakland.
Revelli, 65, grew up helping his father and uncle in the family tire shop and worked there full time since he was 19.
"I just want to stay in business," Revelli said after giving his keys to a city employee. "But it's impossible for me to find another location that good in downtown Oakland. We owned the property and had low overhead. I can't match that at another site. They put me out of business."
Eminent domain has also left bitter feelings in San Jose and Redwood City, where property owners successfully resisted efforts to force them to sell.
In San Jose, a multiethnic group of merchants at the Tropicana Shopping Center won its court battle in 2003 and stopped a city effort to condemn the mall as blighted and turn it over to a private developer for redevelopment. City officials have not decided whether to try again in light of the Supreme Court decision.
In Redwood City, the Celotti family finally agreed last year to sell their downtown property to city's redevelopment agency for about five times its original offer. Their decision followed a San Mateo County Superior Court ruling that the city could not use eminent domain to condemn the property. But the ruling came too late the Celottis' building had been demolished in 2003. The city paid them $3 million and made a formal apology as part of the settlement.
Ron Lau of Santa Cruz and John Cocores in Alameda are fighting redevelopment efforts despite the Supreme Court decision.
Lau, 70, owns a now-vacant lot that formerly housed a popular downtown bookstore and cafe that were seriously damaged in the earthquake. Lau, 70, wants to create "a self-sufficient, fully green building" on the lot but has been unable to obtain financing for his project. In an effort to hasten development, the city is trying to force him to sell so another developer can take over.
"I don't like being pressured," said Lau, who rejected $1.6 million for his lot on Pacific Avenue. "I care about this property and what happens to it. Otherwise I would have sold out."
Cocores owns the 1932-vintage Alameda Theater and some adjacent storefront property on Central Avenue near Park Street in Alameda. The city offered him $1.5 million in May for the 33,000-square- foot concrete and steel-frame structure. But Cocores' real estate agent said the property would be worth more than twice that figure if not for the looming threat of eminent domain.
"We're real far apart on the price," said Cocores' agent, Don Lindsey. "That property was appraised at $3 million. It's not fair to force him to take less."
Pombo, who tracks local eminent domain disputes, pledges that help is on the way.
"A movie theater, a department store or a mall are not public uses," Pombo said Friday. "They are not taking this land to build roads to schools or parks; they are just helping politically powerful interests. I'd like to stop projects like these dead in their tracks. "
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