In domain of renewal, a bad law: Philadelphia (PA) Daily News, 11/11/05

By Elmer Smith

West Philadelphia's first full-service shopping center is about to break free of the red tape it has been mired in for years.

That is, it will, assuming that the last 10 vacant and blighted structures left standing in the 31-acre tract can be acquired through eminent domain.

Up to now, acquiring those last parcels wouldn't have even been an afterthought.

The Goldenberg Group, developer of the Park West Town Center project, acquired all of the other properties in the 308,000-square-foot tract by agreements of sale. The 10 it couldn't acquire that way are shells that meet any reasonable definition of blight.

Under eminent domain law in Pennsylvania, the city will acquire the properties at a fair-market value and the project will finally get under way.

But by next year, the city might be prohibited from acquiring the last 10 properties. A proposal in the state Senate, authored by Sen Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, would prohibit taking any property through eminent domain unless at least 51 percent of the surrounding properties are blighted.

Furthermore, if a bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday becomes law, the city would lose all federal economic-development aid for two years if it used eminent domain to take any private property for transfer to another private owner for economic-development purposes.

All of this flurry of legislation comes from a recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld the right of New London, Conn., to acquire properties in a thriving, blight-free neighborhood and convey them to a private developer.

The resulting howl was understandable, and the quick response of lawmakers in at least 12 states and in Washington sounds like a textbook case of big government rushing to the rescue of little taxpayers.

But the issue is not nearly that simple. Which may explain why all three members of Philadelphia's congressional delegation have opposed HR 4128.

"The bill was hastily crafted," Congressman Chaka Fattah responded in writing yesterday when I asked him to explain his vote.

Fattah says he is sensitive to governmental intrusion against personal-property rights. But he argues that the bill "would impede local municipal efforts in advancing neighborhood revitalization."

Congressman Bob Brady agrees.

"This at first glance seems to make sense," said Stanley White, Brady's chief of staff. But it would have a substantial back-blast. "This law would stop the Redevelopment Authority from doing most of what it is doing under NTI," he said, referring to Mayor Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

Seen in its best light, it's bad law for a good purpose. It sounds good, until you examine how eminent domain has been used in Philadelphia.

"We've built more than 7,000 units of affordable housing by acquiring properties to assemble parcels," said Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Herb Wetzel. "We needed eminent domain to do that."

"Under the Piccola bill, you could have a block where every other house is abandoned and we couldn't acquire the properties because the block still wouldn't meet the 51 percent standard.

"In Harrisburg yesterday just about every redevelopment authority in the state opposed the bill."

But it might not matter, if the federal law passes.

This is a city where eminent domain has been used to increase housing options for low-income families and to build projects like the shopping center going up at 52nd and Parkside.

Eliminating eminent domain may do more to hurt than to help the little guys that our lawmakers are rushing to rescue.

Philadelphia Daily News: www.philly.com/mld/dailynews/news