10/18/2006

The domain game: San Gabriel Valley CA Tribune, 10/14/06

Businesses angered by city s buyout plan

By Alison Hewitt

As part of Azusa's plans to update its aging downtown and other pockets of the city, the City Council recently gave its redevelopment agency the authority to use eminent domain on dozens of small businesses.

The city has no intention to buy those properties yet, said Bruce Coleman, director of economic and community development for Azusa, saying revitalization plans are still in the early stages. Nevertheless, the eventual plan could be to buy up and consolidate some of the smaller parcels in order to attract larger businesses - and the bigger property tax payments that come with them, Coleman said.

Downtown, the goal is to create mixed-use development to put housing and shopping within easy reach of a future Gold Line station. In West Azusa, city planners are considering ways to create large enough parcels to bring in more "big-box" stores to help buoy and diversify the city's property tax income, Coleman said.

Several of the affected business owners are concerned or angry about the proposals. They acknowledge that revitalization might be good for the city but are upset that Azusa might take their property in the process.

"I told them I don't want to sell," said Joe Santoro, who owns

Citywide Sheet Metal in west Azusa. He and his neighbors are on the eminent domain list. "I'm worried the city will buy it," he said. "They won't tell us anything. They say they have no plans for this area yet ... but they must have a plan, because I'm on their hit list."

Others are indifferent, including Tony Lazzeri, owner of a printing company near Santoro's building. "I was thinking of moving anyway," he said with a shrug.

But Fred Raab is angry. His family owns a building in downtown Azusa and rents it out to a travel agency and a photography business. He was one of several property owners on the eminent domain list until they went to City Hall to complain.

"We said, `We're not blighted, we're successful businesses,"' Raab recalled. "A lot of us think redevelopment is fair, but the city has so much property, it's like, `Go ahead and redevelop what you have before you start on more.'

"But they know as soon as they do that, our property values will go up, and they'd have to pay more for our properties."

Even the potential for eminent domain can drive property values down, said Raab and his neighbor, Andrea Cruz. Her father owns a downtown real estate office that also got off the eminent domain list. Fear of eminent domain drives rental tenants to look for new locations, and property owners who are interested in selling sooner than the city is ready to buy have trouble finding a buyer and getting a good price, Cruz said.

"That is all too often what happens," she said. "The city is not acquiring blighted areas - it's that once they acquire them, they depress the property values and it becomes blighted. They are creating the blight."

Coleman disagreed, saying investment is beginning to flow into the city's redevelopment zones. He also emphasized that no one's land is being targeted yet, and that the potential use of eminent domain does not hurt property values.

"We think it's important to be doing this now," Coleman said. "It's a major opportunity to encourage the continued revitalization of downtown and take advantage of the fact that the Gold Line is wanting to locate a station near downtown."

The Gold Line station, proposed to go across Alameda Avenue just north of City Hall, could become the basis for a strong mixed-use development, Coleman said. The city is talking with a developer and searching for large anchor stores that could draw pedestrians in.

All the city's plans could be rendered moot in November if state voters pass Proposition 90, which would prevent government agencies from using eminent domain to build anything other than public projects, such as highways, train stations or public parking lots.

"For a supermarket or a mall or a housing development, they can't do it," explained Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. A second part of the proposition would require the government to reimburse property owners if it makes decisions that decrease the land's value, whether through zoning changes, environmental decisions or other means, Stern pointed out.

But for some properties that Gold Line officials want to turn into part of the future station and parking lot, even Proposition 90 wouldn't end their concerns.

"From everything we're hearing, we'll be bought, either by city for mixed use or by the Gold Line for parking," said John Cortez, whose family owns - and wants to keep - Johnny's Towing and Storage downtown. "We're sort of in limbo."


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