Peekskill BID fears eminent domain: Westchester (NY) Journal News, 6/4/06

By Brian Howard

Three weeks after approving a downtown blight study and redevelopment plan, the city has yet to sign contracts with consultants, but has begun pitching its plans to merchants.

Some of those merchants, members of the Peekskill Business Improvement District [BID], will be going over the city's proposal Tuesday, following a presentation last week.

"My mind is not changed because they're still going to use the blight study," said Jerry DiCola, owner of Peekskill Paint & Hardware on Main Street and a BID member who was at Wednesday's packed meeting. "And I cannot accept that terminology because it's the first legal step in doing eminent domain."

A blight study is an inventory of such conditions as crime, poor sanitation, overcrowding, traffic congestion, fire hazards and pollution within a given area. Such a study would let the city take property under eminent domain — or condemnation — procedures.

City officials say they want that authority, but don't plan to use it, on 20 acres bounded by Main, Brown, Broad and Bank streets targeted for redevelopment.

On May 8, the Common Council approved hiring a Long Island consultant to conduct the blight study as the basis of a redevelopment plan by Warshauer Mellusi Warshauer Architects of Hawthorne. That triggered weeks of grass-roots organizing and petition-gathering by opponents.

"I agree that it needs to be redeveloped, but I would like to see it done without the threat of eminent domain," DiCola said.

DiCola's business has been around since before the city's last major attempt at downtown revitalization. The 2000 book "Old Peekskill's Destruction" by City Historian John Curran details the urban renewal era of the 1960s and '70s, when hundreds of buildings and entire blocks were razed.

The Academy Street project, as it was known then, the city's first and biggest project, also targeted the current study area. Many downtown lots cleared during urban renewal were never redeveloped, critics note, including a lot within the study area at Park and Broad streets.

The BID, whose boundaries include the study area, has not taken a position on the issue yet, President Joseph Lippolis said. It may do so after Tuesday's session to review the city's presentation.

Mayor John Testa said the goal of any redevelopment plan that follows the blight study would be to preserve businesses and build new housing to create a customer base close by.

He disputed wording in a 1,435-signature petition opponents submitted last week that said the city would give developers the right to take private property. But he agreed with its call for public involvement, and for any project to be historically consistent and to promote sustainable economic development.

"The goal is to have a plan that will actually get built," Testa said. "We don't just want a plan and a nice drawing that ends up hanging in City Hall for 15 years."

He said the city's waterfront master plan failed for years to prompt new development there until the city conducted a blight study. Officials contend the same fate would be in store for the downtown redevelopment.

Councilwoman Drew Claxton, a member of the council's Democratic minority that opposed the blight study and redevelopment plan, disagreed.

A master plan would incorporate public input without the threat of eminent domain, she said. Instead, the city has taken a "lazy" approach and accused critics of opposing revitalization, which she said everyone favored.

"That is not in dispute," Claxton said. "The dispute is in how you get there."

Opponents have met several times since the study was authorized, and held a panel discussion aimed at Hispanic merchants.

"No one wants to stop development," said restaurateur Arnie Paglia, who owns two properties in the study area. "We just don't want to lose our rights."

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