Eminent-domain land buy adds to Restaurant Row: The (Riverside CA) Press-Enterprise, 6/9/06

It brings the city a step closer to having a dining district on Merrill Avenue

By Doug Haberman

The [Riverside] Redevelopment Agency this week signed a deal to buy a parcel it was seeking for a proposed Restaurant Row on Merrill Avenue across from Riverside Plaza.

The agency agreed to pay owners Joseph and Mary Yoder $1 million for the parcel holding the Audio Shoppe, deputy city attorney Eddie Diaz said.

Alan Hickman, owner of the Audio Shoppe, said he has been there 22 years and is irritated he has to leave.

But he hopes to draw on his contacts around town to find a new location.

"All in all, it might be OK," Hickman said. "I'll make it all work."

The deal with the Yoders takes the city one step closer to turning Merrill between Riverside and De Anza avenues into Restaurant Row.

The agency previously bought two parcels for a combined $1,683,200, Diaz said.

The city is seeking to acquire three remaining parcels, owned by the Garner Family Trust, by eminent domain.

These parcels include two that hold boarded-up, vacant buildings and one that houses auto-related businesses.

A Riverside County Superior Court judge granted the agency an order of possession May 17, but the Garners haven't been served with the eminent domain complaint yet and they have 90 days after that to contest the order, said Mark Easter, an outside attorney for the city.

Roscoe Keagy, an attorney representing the Garners, said his clients had not decided if they would dispute the agency's right to take their property by eminent domain or if they would simply go to trial over the fair-market value.

The city deposited $2,639,000 with Riverside County Superior Court as probable just compensation for the three Garner parcels, court records show.

The idea of a Restaurant Row on Merrill has been around for years but the revitalization of Riverside Plaza has given the city new impetus to pursue the project.

No restaurants are lined up yet but "we do have a lot of people who have called," Development Director Belinda Graham said.

The plan is for the agency to ask developers to submit proposals.

The agency would sell the six parcels to the developer chosen, Graham said.

But the agency isn't waiting to make what progress it can.

Workers this week were demolishing a building on the westernmost of the six parcels, the former home of Riverside Plaza Tire & Auto. It is one of the parcels that the agency bought.

The Restaurant Row project only affects the six parcels in the middle of Merrill.

The Staples store and VIP Nightclub & Restaurant on the west end of the block and America's Tire Co., Market Broiler and Marie Callender's restaurant on the east end will remain where they are, officials said.

Councilman Art Gage, whose ward includes the Plaza neighborhood, said the tire store does not fit in but has been renovated and nicely maintained.

The Restaurant Row project might not be only restaurants, he and Graham said.

The council's Development Committee approved guidelines for the project that call for two- and three-story buildings with restaurants, stores and entertainment outlets on the ground floor and office space or even residential units above. A parking structure also would be needed.

Rodney Couch, owner of the Market Broiler, said Riverside could use more mid-priced casual-dining restaurants like his and the El Torito that is set to open soon at the Plaza.

"I think it's a wonderful idea," he said.

The Press-Enterprise: http://www.pe.com