TDA Moves Toward Eminent Domain Process: Towerview battle looms: Tulsa OK World, 12/13/06

Dilapidated site targeted; owner's lawyer vows to fight acquisition

By P J Lassek

The Tulsa Development Authority [TDA] approved a resolution Tuesday that starts the eminent domain process against the vacant and dilapidated Towerview Apartments.

But the lawyer for the owner of the targeted downtown property, Luay Aljamal of Oregon, said Aljamal will fight the action.

"Under no circumstances is my client going to go down without a fight in any attempts to condemn or take the property by eminent domain," attorney Phil Owens said in a telephone interview.

The apartment building, located on Cheyenne Avenue between Second and Third streets, was vacated in 2004 after the Tulsa City-County Health Department found several code violations and the owner refused to make repairs.

During a TDA meeting on Tuesday, city Economic Development Director Don Himelfarb said the parcel is part of a one-block area across from the BOK Center that has drawn the interest of a couple of hotel developers.

Himelfarb said the inability to acquire the entire block is hindering development options.

The Towerview property, he said, is "vacant, blighted and an eyesore."

One hotel developer who submitted a project proposal to the city was unable to reach an agreeable acquisition deal for the property, Himelfarb said. A second looked at the site and determined it can't be developed without acquiring the entire block, he said.

Litigation over the property "is a mess," Himelfarb said.

Aljamal is pursuing a lawsuit against the previous owners for allegedly not divulging all of the problems with the building before the sale. The previous owners are countersuing, alleging that Aljamal still owes them money.

All the city is interested in is acquiring title to the property, Himelfarb said. The current price figures being "thrown around have no correlation to anything that makes sense," he said.

Heavenly Hospitality of Anthem, Ariz., has proposed to the city to build a mammoth development on the site including a hotel, condominiums, urban lofts, retail and restaurant space.

Owens said Aljamal and Heavenly Hospitality had a contract signed for the Towerview property, but it was later canceled by mutual agreement.

Larry Dalton, president of Heavenly Hospitality, said the property has a lot of issues with its title and actual value.

A copy of the initial contract between the company and Aljamal listed the sale price as $2,050,000. But, Dalton said, that price was subject to an appraisal of the property and his company would not have paid more than the appraised value.

In 2004, shortly after being closed, the apartments were listed on a real estate Web site for $980,000. It then rose to $2 million and the listing was removed. The price increase occurred well before the hotel made its proposal.

Owens said the contract was canceled because of time frame issues relating to title of the property and escrow deposits. Dalton agreed, but added the price was an issue with the contract cancellation.

"Clearly, the $2 million is a very high price if you don't give value to the building, which we don't. He gives a lot of value to the building," Dalton said. "We think it's a building that needs to come down."

Dalton said he prefers not to use the eminent domain route, but there are complicated issues with the property and getting title to it.

Neither Dalton nor Owens knew that the authority had taken action on Tuesday.

Owens said that if necessary, Aljamal will remodel the property into lofts or some other use before he will agree to eminent domain.

Development Authority Executive Director Brenda Miller said TDA has enough funds to pay a fair market price and for demolition of the building. If the cost goes beyond that amount, the city and TDA will have to work together to find funds.

The TDA resolution seeks to add the Towerview site to the urban renewal acquisition plan for the downtown area and recommends that the City Council pursue acquisition. The recommendation will go to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission for approval before going to the council for approval of eminent domain.

Himelfarb told TDA members that he doesn't know what the council will do.

"I certainly will use my best communication skills," he said. "I think if laid out properly, they'll come to the same conclusion as we have."

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