Fresno agency seeks more eminent domain power: The Fresno (CA) Bee, 9/2/05

By John Ellis

Fresno's Redevelopment Agency wants to vastly expand its authority to condemn property in an area southeast of Grizzlies Stadium that the city has chosen for a large mixed-use development.

Currently, the agency has eminent domain powers over about half the properties in an area covering more than 10 square blocks and bounded by Freeway 41, Van Ness Avenue, Inyo and H streets.

A proposed change that will be considered Sept. 20 by the City Council — which also serves as the city's Redevelopment Agency board — would extend those eminent domain powers to the remainder of the parcels in that area.

Taken together, the 85-acre expanse in downtown Fresno is where Forest City Enterprises is working on a master development plan expected to be unveiled in the next few months.

City officials say taking property from landowners against their will would be used only as a last resort and might not be used at all, but they need that power as a tool to assemble properties to meet Forest City's vision for the land.

"It's good to have everything lined up at this point," said Council Member Tom Boyajian, who chairs the city's Redevelopment Agency board. "It doesn't mean everybody goes out. Some buildings and businesses will be able to stay."

The key, he said, is Forest City's plan for the area and what businesses fit into that plan.

Several of the property owners affected by the change, however, are unhappy about the possibility of being forced to uproot their businesses and leave downtown.

"There would be a fight," predicted Mitch Long, president of Valley Pipe & Supply, located at the corner of H and Santa Clara streets.

Evan W. Hammer Jr., who owns Evans Electric Service at the corner of Ventura and Fulton streets, said the city "doesn't have a clue about these businesses that have been around here for 40, 50, 60, 70 years."

The Evans Electric sign has "Since 1928" on it. It first opened on Broadway, a few blocks from its current location.

Both Hammer and Long recalled a redevelopment battle they fought in 1989, when the city wanted to locate a Price Club southwest of the Van Ness Avenue and Ventura Street intersection. The project never materialized.

Valley Pipe has been in business for almost 66 years, all of it downtown, Long said. His grandfather started the business in late 1939, and it moved to its current location in the 1970s.

He said the company's location is ideal because of its proximity to the 99 and 41 freeways. In addition, he said, the land is paid off. "We're here," he said. "We're [the city's] tax base."

Nearby is Graves Upholstering and Manufacturing Co., which was forced to move from Fresno Street and Kearney Boulevard around 1980 because of a redevelopment project.

Now, the business — which was started in 1955 by Rudy Graves' father in his kitchen — is again being targeted. "I'm mixed about it," Graves said. "I'm for revitalizing downtown, but revitalizing downtown should not mean existing businesses move."

In addition, the city's historic preservation community doesn't like the proposed changes.

"Is this really the only way to solve blight, to take 82 acres of citizens' land and turn it over to an out-of-state company?" asked preservationist Jeanette Jurkovich. "I really have a question as to whether or not there isn't another way."

The 10-square-block area that is the focus of the latest Redevelopment Agency action is actually part of a larger area known as the Convention Center Area Community Redevelopment Plan. A plan for that area was first adopted in 1981 and also takes in Old Armenian Town, a project that includes a new home for the state's 5th District Court of Appeal.

Jerry Freeman, project manager for the city Redevelopment Agency, said the original plan was updated in 1998, and some properties that were blighted and in poor condition were added to a list, making them subject to condemnation.

"Hindsight tells us when we first adopted the plan in 1981, we should have made all properties subject to acquisition," Freeman said. "However, that's not what was done."

The city's Redevelopment Agency must go through this exercise because when the redevelopment plan for the convention center area was first adopted, only certain properties were marked for seizure by eminent domain, if necessary. To add properties to that list, the plan must be amended.

A majority of the properties the city proposes to add to the "subject to acquisition" list are on Fulton and H streets and on Broadway. Three entire blocks between Broadway and H from Mono to San Benito are on the list.

But five parcels outside of the Freeway 41, Van Ness Avenue, Inyo and H streets square also are proposed for addition to properties the Redevelopment Agency can take by eminent domain. Among them are the Arco Garage at Kern Street and Van Ness Avenue, the former Mexican Consulate next door, and the Super 8 motel at Inyo and L streets.

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