By Jason Clayworth
City leaders say they will force a Des Moines business owner to sell two buildings in the burgeoning East Village area of downtown because he has failed to make upgrades to the property.
The move would be the city's first use of a U.S. Supreme Court-granted power to wrest control of private property and put it in the hands of developers as a way to boost the tax base.
Property rights advocates warn the action could pave the way for countless forced property sales.
"I'm going to fight tooth and nail," said Brad Hamilton, who owns 422 and 424 E. Locust St. — a T-shirt printing business and ZZZ Records. His buildings "impair the redevelopment" of the East Village, according to city officials.
The East Village in the past five years has been transformed from a mix of buildings, some vacant, to a collection of shops, restaurants, loft apartments and condominiums.
The improvements received a helping hand when the city pumped more than $11 million into the area just west of the Capitol for aesthetic improvements and developer incentives.
Hamilton's buildings passed an inspection in 2000.
But city officials in 2002 set guidelines for renovations and targeted about a dozen East Village buildings. Owners who failed to make improvements were told they would face eminent domain, which is the government's power to force land sales when property is considered necessary for public improvements.
"The idea is to save these buildings," the assistant city manager, Rick Clark, said at the time.
Most of the property owners have completed major renovations. City leaders, however, say Hamilton's buildings and a third, at 434 E. Locust owned by Kirk Blunck, "remain in a blighted condition."
Hamilton submitted a plan in April for $12,000 in repairs. City officials said it lacked detail.
Clark sent letters on Aug. 26 that gave Hamilton and Blunck 10 days to act. The letters did not mention specifically what needed to be fixed, but Blunck responded with a plan for almost $105,000 of improvements within the next year.
Hamilton initially balked, but plans to meet again with city officials this week.
The buildings were boarded up when he purchased them about five years ago. Hamilton says he has already updated plumbing, electrical work and floors, in addition to outside work on the buildings' facades.
He believes influential people who want his property have pressured city leaders to harass him.
"Do you think I'm going to let them steal my property? No way," he said.
Clark last week acknowledged that work has been done on Hamilton's buildings but said the improvements pale in comparison to others in the East Village area.
"I think what we're really looking for is a plan," Clark said. "I haven't personally gone through the buildings so I'm not sure exactly what all the conditions are inside."
Attorney Bill Lillis represents several property owners in the East Village, including Iowa State Bank Chief Executive John Burgeson and Basil Prosperi Bakery's Steve Logsdon.
Lillis urged the council on June 6 "to move without delay" and force Hamilton to make additional improvements.
Lillis on Aug. 17 submitted a client's offer to buy Hamilton's properties. Hamilton turned down the $450,000 offer.
City Councilman Archie Brooks said he will propose action within the next month to move forward with eminent domain proceedings.
He said the $450,000 offer is far more than what the city will give Hamilton. The properties are valued at $206,000, up almost $70,000 since 2001, according to county records.
"We're not asking him to do anything else than what others have already done," Brooks said. "We're not going to let this die. We've got people standing in line to buy those buildings over there."
Eminent domain powers for generations were used almost exclusively to force land sales for roads, bridges and public buildings, said Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit policy group in Los Angeles.
Politicians abuse the power to achieve goals that have nothing to do with the public good, Moore said this summer, shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that cities can use eminent domain to help economic development.
"Taking people's property away for a public interest is one thing, but taking it away to give to another use that will pay more taxes is terrible," Moore said. "That means that nobody's property is safe."
At least six East Village property owners declined to comment specifically about Hamilton's situation, but none acknowledged complaints about the property. Brooks and Clark say they have received frequent complaints.
Property owner Bill Sexton said the beauty of the neighborhood is its eclectic mix of historic buildings and businesses, such as Hamilton's record store.
"I've been in that building and it's not in bad condition," he said.
Bryan Smith, manager of Blazing Saddle at 416 E. Sixth St. and a board member of the East Village neighborhood association, said his group has no problem with the condition of Hamilton's buildings. He said he is troubled by the city's threats.
"If they deem it viable to do something else with your building, they can consider anything an eyesore," Smith said. "Really, nobody is safe and especially the small people and business owners like us."
Des Moines Register: http://desmoinesregister.com