San Jose's unsuccessful attempt to seize and renovate the Tropicana Shopping Center split the candidates for mayor Monday night in a debate at City Hall.
At the forum convened by a real estate group, the first question asked of candidates was how aggressive the city should be in using its power of eminent domain, which allows it to force the sale of private property for a public project.
"We are out there scaring our people who think the city might come in and take people's houses," said Councilman Chuck Reed, one of five candidates in the June 6 primary election who were invited to the forum sponsored by the Hispanic Association of Realtors and Affiliates.
Reed voted against the takeover when it came before the city council. The two other candidates on the council, Dave Cortese and Cindy Chavez, supported it.
Cortese was the only candidate to strongly defend the way the city had tried to remodel the shopping center on the East Side. It had become blighted, he said, and without the city's intervention, improvements visible there today would not have happened.
Reed, Cortese and Chavez were joined by local businessman Michael Mulcahy and East Side Union High School District school board president J. Manuel Herrera in the two-hour forum in the council chambers at City Hall, before an audience of more than 100.
The Tropicana takeover ultimately was undercut by an unfavorable court ruling. A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, however, has been widely seen as giving cities considerable latitude in taking private property not only for roads or parks, but for economic development projects such as shopping center renovations.
Mulcahy, whose business is real estate, and Reed were most critical of the city's Tropicana strategy. Mulcahy said Tropicana was an example of eminent domain being "irresponsibly wielded by the city council."
Chavez did not specifically address Tropicana, but praised the limits the city had placed on eminent domain when it extended redevelopment programs into neighborhoods. The loss of property to eminent domain was a prominent neighborhood concern when the city was considering the program.
On the other hand, Chavez said, as the city expands parks and libraries, "there will be times when eminent domain will be necessary."
Herrera said the city should always look for other options than taking property from an unwilling owner.
Candidates also took different positions on the question of how much public money should be spent for a San Jose dream landing a major league baseball team.
Chavez said the city should look for partnerships that would lessen public expenses. Reed ruled out taking money from the city's general fund. Cortese favored a plan that would generate revenues from commercial development around a stadium.
Mulcahy and Cortese are members of Baseball San Jose, which aims to bring a team to town. Mulcahy said supporters need to prove it would be an overall economic plus. Herrera said the cost of a stadium "ought to rest on the private sector."
In answering other questions, the candidates covered familiar issues. All supported bringing BART to San Jose.
They expressed only slight differences over the issue of development of Coyote Valley, on the city's southern border.
The candidates stressed that the city cannot build housing there before finding businesses to put jobs into the northern section of the valley. Otherwise, in their view, the city will worsen its tax revenue shortage by having too many houses and too few jobs.
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