UAB in eminent domain scrap: Birmingham (AL) News, 9/18/05

By Russell Hubbard

For more than 80 years, Irvin Siegal's family has owned a nice block of land near the [UAB] University of Alabama at Birmingham, a school that didn't exist when Siegal's father opened an auto parts business just before the Great Depression.

Now, the university the family watched grow from scratch into the largest downtown landowner is hungrily eyeing the land, and there is little they can do to stop it. UAB invoked its eminent domain rights, and has the authority to take the property upon payment of compensation. Siegal won't go quietly.

"We wanted to leave this to our children as a legacy," said Siegal, 81, of the property that now houses Panda Buffet and McAlisters Deli on 18th Street South. "I'm passionate about this and ready to fight it all the way."

The case is scheduled to be heard in Jefferson County Circuit Court after Siegal appealed the taking, saying the UAB price approved by probate commissioners - $2.1 million for one of the prime restaurant sites in town - was far too low. UAB also appealed the decision on how much the probate panel ordered it to pay.

It's a problem that is apt to vex downtown landowners and the state's largest research institution for some years to come. The campus that was home to 365 students in 1939 now enrolls 17,000, and they have a voracious appetite for parking lots, office buildings, classrooms and health clinics that can come only from land that is now in private hands.

"We have a master plan for development of UAB and it does call for more limited expansion," said UAB spokesman Gary Mans. "We try to work with landowners as the campus grows physically and hope to come to mutual agreement on land purchases. We also look upon eminent domain as a last resort."

Siegal's land has been in the family since the 1920s, and for many years was the site of Alabama Auto Parts Co., the firm his father founded. It is just one of three parcels UAB wants for a women and children's health center. The school also wants the site of a nearby Arby's restaurant, and the historic Young & Vann Supply Co., built in the 1890s as a beer warehouse.

Arby's has also appealed being thrown off its land, saying UAB's price was too low. The owners of the Young & Vann building haven't appealed.

"We are just very unhappy about the way UAB has decided to compensate us," said Siegal, who owns the land with his sister. "The figure we would sell at is far greater than anything they offered."

UAB's price doesn't even come close to approximating the value of the land, Siegal said. It would be financial suicide, he said, to accept such a price, especially considering his sister, whose husband is disabled, depends upon rental income for survival. He said he would consider swapping his land for a similar property, but that hasn't been offered.

UAB has ambitious plans for the sites. The women and infants hospital will specialize in high-risk obstetrics and consolidate services now scattered across 11 blocks between Children's Hospital and UAB's medical centers. The proposed hospital would also house gynecological cancer services and intensive care wards for newborn children.

Last year, the University of Alabama System board of trustees' properties committee gave UAB approval to use its power of eminent domain to condemn land it needs for the project if it does not reach a sale agreement with owners.

Siegal has his own ideas. He has already planned it out with his children for when he dies: the property would be redeveloped into an retail/medical office project. That way, it stays in the family and serves the area, too, he said.

"That would perfectly suit the medical and health community," he said.

UAB doesn't want to deprive anyone, said spokesman Mans, but makes no apologies for fulfilling its mission.

"The offers that we have made to the owners are based upon appraisals that we have received," he said. "For UAB Hospital to continue to provide the high-quality patient care that people expect and demand, it is necessary for us to update our facilities."

Siegal is tough, too, and a has one of those vita's that command instant respect - World War II veteran, University of Alabama business school graduate, former Small Business Administration Businessman of the Year.

"It's a shame UAB has the power to do this to people and it could happen to anyone," Siegal said. "Sure, the have the right, but is it fair? If they want the right, they should pay fairly for it."

Birmingham News: www.al.com