Merchants in Peekskill fear eminent domain: The Journal news (Westchester NY), 5/21/06

By Brian J Howard

Business has been so good at La Placita Market, owner Wilson Narvaez never thought someone might consider it an example of downtown blight.

But Narvaez, who opened the Main Street grocery store in 2004, doesn't know what to think now that the city has commissioned a blight study of the surrounding neighborhood.

"Your future's not secure. You're spending your money, and you're not secure in your business," he said. "I'm not in favor of it or against it until I know how they are going to handle it."

Voting 4-3 along party lines, the Common Council approved hiring Cleary Consulting of Northport, on Long Island, for $8,500 to study the four blocks bounded by Main, Bank, Brown and South Broad streets.

By the same vote, the council agreed to pay Warshauer Mellusi Warshauer Architects of Hawthorne $75,000 for a redevelopment plan for the same area.

The 20-acre study area includes a lot left vacant by 1960s urban renewal, a municipal parking garage and the Crossroads Plaza shopping center. It also includes Hudson River HealthCare, one of the city's largest employers.

Mayor John Testa said the study is the first step toward downtown revitalization.

"It's not really about getting rid of buildings," Testa said. "It's about bringing people to live downtown, creating public spaces and giving people places to go."

"Blight study" is a bad name for what is simply an inventory that will form the basis of a redevelopment plan, consultant Patrick Cleary said. However, he conceded, the study would give the city the power to take property under eminent domain.

That has stirred fears among Peekskill business owners.

With good reason, says an attorney who represents clients in eminent-domain cases from Port Chester to New London, Conn.

The New London case formed the basis of a controversial 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld municipalities' use of eminent domain for private redevelopment as well as for traditional public works projects, like new highways or road widening.

Even if officials promise not to use eminent domain now, the blight study could be used to invoke it years from now, said Dana Berliner, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.

"If they won't rule it out, it's absolutely a terrible idea for this neighborhood, assuming any of those businesses want to stay there," Berliner said. "If they want to stay there, they should be fighting this."

Seth Weinstein, who owns the Peekskill Laundromat on Park Street, was among a handful of business and property owners who packed a recent Common Council meeting to protest the blight study and who have been meeting since then to formulate plans to oppose it.

"I'm really nervous," said Weinstein, a father of two. "I just spent a lot of money remodeling."

Testa said their fears are unfounded and promised the process would be open. But as was the case with the $200 million waterfront redevelopment now under review, the mayor would not rule out the use of eminent domain.

Councilwoman Mary Foster, one of three Democrats who voted against the study and redevelopment plan, said the issue was not discussed publicly before the May 8 vote and came up only in a closed-door session a week earlier.

Testa first raised the issue of downtown redevelopment in an April 14 memo he provided to The Journal News at the time.

Foster said she prefers a market-based approach over Republicans' government-directed tack.

"I think we've all seen that that approach doesn't work," Foster said. "If you do this, what then gives any comfort to future business owners or developers that this isn't going to happen to them?"

Arnie Paglia, who owns two commercial properties within the study area and a restaurant just outside, said business owners support downtown revitalization. They just don't want to be cut out of the process.

"They developed this behind closed doors. Business doesn't work that way," Paglia said. "We have to reverse this trend of eminent domain, of government deciding what's best for the people."

The Journal News: http://www.thejournalnews.com