Mayor hopes to resolve eminent domain issue: El Paso TX Times, 11/1/06

By David Crowder

The El Paso City Council voted to go forward with a controversial Downtown development plan Tuesday by the same 5-3 margin that has typified most of council's major decisions for the past year.

The council heard from about 50 people on both sides of the issue before approving the land-use changes in a 300-acre area of Downtown called for by a plan developed by the Paso del Norte Group and SMWM, a San Francisco planning firm.

In the next decade or so, the Downtown redevelopment calls for a combination of private and public investment that will bring in major retail stores, a Mexican-style mercado, an arena and new homes and apartments for thousands of new and relocated residents.

More than 200 people packed the council chambers, as roughly equal numbers of supporters and opponents of the Downtown plan attended.

Mayor John Cook, noting the sharp divisions on the council and in the city over the potential use of eminent domain to acquire property for private development, said he would like to resolve that issue in the next stage of the redevelopment plan.

"I do believe we can have unanimity by removing eminent domain," he said, explaining that he has asked the city attorney's office to draft an ordinance that would restrict the use of eminent domain to situations involving public improvements and "truly blighted property."

"I think we can come back with an ordinance that identifies those issues that we'll use, take a lot of fears off the public and also the fears of the elected officials who have voiced opposition to the concept of the land-use plan today," Cook said.

The possibility of using the city's power to condemn property would not come into play under any circumstances until after the creation of a private, nonprofit Real Estate Investment Trust, which should begin acquiring properties for redevelopment next year. The city had already guaranteed that there would be no use of eminent domain for a year after the approval of the land-use plan.

East-Central city Rep. José Alexandro Lozano, who has sided with the council majority on votes concerning the Downtown plan in the past, said there are too many unknowns.

"The problem we have here is we don't know what we're up against or how much it's going to cost" for the city's eventual investment in public improvements, he said. "I don't think it's going to work."

East-Central city Rep. Eddie Holguin has voted against the plan at every opportunity and did so again Tuesday.

"What I find interesting is the people who have nothing to lose are the strongest supporters of the plan," he said.

But West-Central city Rep. Susie Byrd said El Pasoans have wanted to see improvements Downtown for many years, but the Downtown and South El Paso property owners have been content with the status quo.

Businessman Jesse Alvarez said he grew up in poverty and understands the importance of having the opportunity to escape.

"You cannot expect success when you are surrounded by poverty," he said, referring to the tenements in Segundo Barrio. "I don't think the opponents understand how the plan will benefit them and their children in the future."

Korean businessman Han C. Park said all the discussion has involved or been about property owners, but has left out some 200 Korean business operators who have spent lifetimes running their shops and now stand to be displaced.

He questioned whether there will ever be the demand for high-end retail products that the plan hinges on entirely.

Voting for the plan were city Reps. Byrd, Ann Lilly, Presi Ortega, Steve Ortega and Beto O'Rourke.

Voting against it were Reps. Melina Castro, Lozano and Holguin.

El Paso TX Times: http://www.elpasotimes.com