Eminent domain looms over arena site: Pittsburgh (PA) Tribune Review, 7/15/06

Shop gets offer it can't refuse

By Andrew Conte

Mark and Goldie Bertenthal got an offer they can't refuse. No, really.

For 27 years, the Bertenthals have run a sign shop out of their Uptown building on Fifth Avenue. But that's where the city-county Sports and Exhibition Authority wants to build a new arena.

A broker contacted the couple this week, seeking a sales agreement by the end of July and saying the SEA would try to take the property by eminent domain if they refuse to sell, Mark Bertenthal said.

"That was about the third (thing) out of his mouth — eminent domain," he said.

Under a recent change in state law, the SEA has until Sept. 2 to decide whether to invoke eminent domain and try taking any of the land it wants for the arena, Executive Director Mary Conturo said Friday.

The change prohibits public agencies from using eminent domain to take private property for private use. Although the arena would be publicly owned, it would be leased to and operated by a private entity.

The SEA probably could skirt the new law by arguing an arena would be used for a public purpose, said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank based in Castle Shannon.

As with other recent projects such as the proposed African-American Cultural Center, PNC Park and Heinz Field, officials want to be able to threaten taking property even if they do not intend to do it, Haulk said.

"The threat has gotten people's backs up," he said.

The SEA is working on a timeline to act before the law takes effect, Conturo said.

"We are trying to get a decision on the site by the end of the summer," she said. "We need to make a decision whether that site's feasible."

If not, the arena could be built on the Mellon Arena site, she said.

The SEA and Penguins want to build the arena between Centre and Fifth avenues, east of Washington Place. The arena would sit diagonally between Epiphany Catholic Church and the Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob synagogue.

The site includes 10 private properties. The SEA wants to buy them this summer, relocate tenants by January and have the site ready for construction a year from now. A new arena could open by fall 2009.

Property owners said they had not received SEA purchase offers.

Prices are expected to reflect an increase in property values since Isle of Capri Casinos started acquiring purchase agreements on nearby properties where it wants to build a slots parlor.

"I really don't want to move, but I wouldn't hold up the arena," said Julian Elbling, whose family has owned J&B Sales on Fifth Avenue since 1927. "They really need something here."

The Bertenthals are not refusing to move either. They have started scouting places to relocate, and said they want to make enough on the sale to open at a new location.

The couple's two Fifth Avenue properties — the shop and a parking lot — are assessed at $157,800. They think it will cost much more than that to replace them.

"If they just give us the money for our building and send us on our way, that's like putting us out of business," Goldie Bertenthal said.

The SEA does not own property where the sign shop could locate, but Conturo said the agency would "do whatever we can to make this an easy transition for everybody."

The state has committed to giving the SEA $26.5 million to buy Uptown properties and prepare the site for a new arena. The money would be repaid with gambling profits from the group that wins the license for Pittsburgh's slots parlor.

The Penguins' lease at Mellon Arena expires following the 2006-07 season.

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