Morristown eminent domain debate to hit court: Parsippany (NJ) Daily Record, 6/22/06

Property owner to battle parking authority over restructuring of Epstein's site

By Rob Seman

The owner of a retail building on DeHart Street and the Morristown Parking Authority will face off in court Friday in an eminent domain battle that affects parts of the redevelopment of Epstein's department store.

For more than a year, property owner Cedric Shabsis, a former Morristown resident who now lives in Florida, and the Parking Authority have been at an impasse in negotiations over the sale of Shabsis' building at 11 DeHart St.

The bright blue sliver-shaped building houses Hollywood Tans, and is in the area that the parking authority has planned to build a loft building and an entrance to a nearly 800-space parking deck.

The area would be first used as a staging ground for the rest of the project, which includes the demolition of the department store and current parking deck, and construction of hundreds of condominiums and apartments as well as the new parking deck.

The parking authority filed suit against Shabsis, who refused offers of $1 million, or a land swap of the Parking Authority's building on Pine Street for Shabsis' building.

Although his building is assessed at $492,000, Shabsis contends it is worth $3 million to $5 million because his tenants pay for maintenance and a portion of the tax.

If the judge rules in the parking authority's favor, the authority would take Shabsis'property. A three-person commission then would be named to determine a fair market value that the authority would pay Shabsis. The parking authority has already deposited $650,000 with the court for the property.

Shabsis, who was previously represented by another attorney, has enlisted John J. Reilly of Westfield, who has experience in condemnations and eminent domain.

Defense outlook
Reilly said that he planned to question whether the parking authority can, by state law, pursue such a taking for anything other than public purpose, and whether the construction of an entrance to the parking deck is simply a pretext to being able to construct the loft building.

"We're having difficulty seeing where the supposed public purpose begins and ends and where the simultaneous private interests begin and end," Reilly said.

"Rehabilitation, I don't think is one of the purposes of the parking authority," Reilly said.

The parking authority's attorney, Robert Goldsmith, however, said the authority is not motivated by private interests.

Goldsmith, an attorney in a Woodbridge-based law firm, is a past president and member of the executive committee of Downtown New Jersey and a member of the board of advisors of Main Street New Jersey.

Goldsmith has served as special counsel to numerous towns in the state in regard to redevelopment projects.

In Morristown, he has served as the attorney to the parking authority since 1983 and the Morristown Partnership special improvement district since 1994. Goldsmith also served as special counsel to Morristown on the Headquarters Plaza Project from 1978-1990.

Need for property
Goldsmith said that Shabsis'property is needed as a staging area for massive sections of the pre-cast parking garage and an entrance to that garage.

A judgment in Shabsis' favor would delay some parts of the project, but "not the overall project," Goldsmith said.

Goldsmith said that some perspective is needed in the case. He said his associates were discussing with Shabsis'tenants the possibility of allowing the tanning salon to become one of the businesses in the new storefronts of the project.

"We're not displacing any families, any residents, and when you look at the value of the project being contemplated overall to the community it's unbalanced," Goldsmith said. "I think it's one of the most significant projects in Morris county in decades."

But Shabsis, an 85-year-old World War II bombardier, also contends that the building holds some personal significance to him.

Personal attachment
Shabsis said that the building was the final location of the knitting shop owned by his late wife, Miriam "Mimi" Shabsis. That store was originally owned by her mother and located at 2 Pine St.

The Knitting Lounge relocated once before moving again to the site on DeHart Street, where it stayed until Mimi Shabsis retired in 1986. Cedric, who worked in the garment industry in Manhattan, had already retired.

The Shabsises then rented the building to various businesses until Hollywood Tans took a five-year lease in 2003. The tanning parlor has an option to renew the lease for another five years, Shabsis said.

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