10/13/2005

Trump again sets sights on Plaza neighbors' land: The Press of Atlantic City (NJ), 10/12/05

By Donald Wittkowski

Their bruising five-year court case finally came to an end in 1998, leaving Clare and Vincent Sabatini exhausted but triumphant.

In what amounted to a real-life version of the Monopoly board game, they were able to fend off Donald Trump from snatching their family-owned restaurant to make room for a casino project.

Then a congratulatory call came from an unlikely well-wisher.

"This is Mr. Trump," said Clare Sabatini, recalling the introduction from the man on the other end of the line. "We were in court for five years, but you were always kind to me and never said anything derogatory."

Seven years later, Trump may come calling again - this time with cash in hand to buy Sabatini's Restaurant, a fixture at the corner of Pacific Avenue and Columbia Place for four decades.

Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. is in talks to acquire the restaurant and another business next door, a cash-for-gold pawnshop, for an expansion of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino.

"My view is, we should offer a reasonable price for those properties. But it's their property. They own it and have a right to say no," said Trump Entertainment president and chief executive officer James B. Perry, confirming that negotiations are under way.

Perry said efforts by Trump Entertainment to reach a deal with a third property owner, Vera Coking, have been unsuccessful because her price is too high. Coking, an elderly widow, has a long history of clashing with casino developers who have sought to buy her three-story former boarding home on Columbia Place.

Trump Entertainment wants to clear out the block between Missouri Avenue, Columbia Place, Pacific Avenue and the Boardwalk for a new hotel tower and other attractions at the Plaza. Perry stressed that the expansion project is in the early stages and could take eight to 10 years to complete.

Sabatini's Restaurant, Coking's home and the Golden Island pawnshop were the properties Trump sought in 1998 during a headline-grabbing court case that ended with a judge rebuffing the gaming mogul and the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, a government agency.

Trump wanted the CRDA to use its power of eminent domain to condemn the private property and give it to him so that he could build a limousine parking lot to complement a previously completed expansion project at the Plaza.

In siding with the property owners, a Superior Court judge ruled that the land seizure was illegal because it would have principally benefited Trump and had no apparent "public purpose."

CRDA had offered the Sabatinis $700,000 for their property in 1998, but the buyout was rejected. However, the Sabatinis had made it known then that they would be willing to sell "if the price was right."

Now, Trump and the Sabatinis reportedly are close to reaching a deal. Clare Sabatini declined to comment about the negotiations, but spoke highly of Trump despite their former legal squabbles.

"There is a side of him that the world should know," she said.

She remembers his complimentary phone call after the court case and noted that he had called her another time when she was in a convalescent home recuperating from a coma.

Sabatini said Trump was simply acting as an astute businessman when he tried to use the CRDA to seize her property. She directed her criticism at the CRDA, lashing out at the agency for abusing its government power of eminent domain.

"My fight was with the government," she said. "Government should not back the Donald Trumps of the world because it reinforces that type of behavior. It was a reward for inappropriate behavior when they tried to condemn our property."

Clare Sabatini and her husband Vincent won the sympathy of "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who lampooned Trump as a greedy casino tycoon in a series of comic strips that chronicled the property dispute.

During the court case, the CRDA had offered Coking $251,250 for her house and $189,500 to brothers Peter and Josef Banin, who own the building where the cash-for-gold pawnshop is located.

The Banins could not be reached for comment about the latest negotiations with Trump. Glenn A. Zeitz, Coking's attorney, declined to comment.

Perry characterized Coking's current asking price as too high, but did not divulge any figures. In 1998, Zeitz said Coking was seeking at least $1.2 million for her property.

Coking first gained publicity in the early 1980s, when she spurned buyout offers from Penthouse magazine publisher Robert Guccione to make way for his never-completed casino project on land now owned by Trump.


The Press of Atlantic City: www.pressofac.com