Foundation backs off push for S. Dallas land seizure: Dallas TX Morning News, 4/15/07

Eminent domain plan for redevelopment of Frazier was disputed

By Scott Goldstein

The Dallas foundation that for months pushed for a controversial change in state law to allow the use of eminent domain for economic development in South Dallas is backing off the proposal – for now.

Officials with the Foundation for Community Empowerment and the nonprofit it formed to plan and facilitate development say they will not scale back on a broad plan to transform the Frazier neighborhood of South Dallas with commercial, industrial and residential projects.

But they now must do so without the legislation that would have allowed them to call on the city to seize large areas of "blighted" property – including several blocks at a time – for redevelopment.

"I think there's a lot of work that we can do right now that does not immediately call for the necessity of eminent domain," said Jon Edmonds, president and chief executive officer of Frazier Revitalization, a nonprofit formed by the Foundation for Community Empowerment in 2005 to acquire property and plan development.

"Having said that, it is a tool that we need and we're going to need," Mr. Edmonds said.

Mr. Edmonds was hired this month to replace Nat Tate, who resigned last month after criticism of the proposal from area residents and leaders. Among those who said they would fight the plan were state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and state Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, whose districts include the Frazier neighborhood.

Opponents said the proposal would allow the city and private developers to displace some of the area's poorest residents. They also point to a history of misuse of eminent domain, including when the city booted out hundreds of homeowners, most of them black, in 1969 to expand Cotton Bowl parking for the Dallas Cowboys, who decided to move to Irving.

Mr. Edmonds' position is a marked shift from that of his predecessor, and to some extent, his boss, J. McDonald "Don" Williams, founder and chairman of the Foundation for Community Empowerment.

Mr. Williams and Mr. Tate said in recent weeks that it is virtually impossible to revitalize a large area of poverty linked with crime and drugs without acquiring blocks of land as opposed to scattered parcels.

In an interview last week, Mr. Williams, a former Trammell Crow executive, said his position is unchanged. In the long term, he said, eminent domain must be an option. Without it, both Mr. Williams and Mr. Edmonds say, progress on commercial projects will be limited because those property owners willing to sell often demand up to five times the appraised value.

"It makes some of the commercial revitalization impossible financially. The deals just don't work," Mr. Williams said. "I think residential is largely unaffected because you can move around."

City officials say the foundation's altered strategy has little effect on their stance on the issue. Officials said they were involved in talks with the foundation primarily to ensure that the proper safeguards would be in place to protect the community if legislation passed. But the plan was not part of the City Council's legislative agenda.

City e-mails obtained by The Dallas Morning News in response to an open records request seemed to indicate that housing director Jerry Killingsworth was hopeful of a change in eminent domain law but was wary of the appearance that he was leading the efforts.

In an August e-mail to City Manager Mary Suhm, Mr. Killingsworth proposed enlisting the city's chief lobbyist Larry Casto to work behind the scenes with Mr. Williams and others "to craft the best strategy and legislation to try to move this issue of expanded condemnation powers forward.

"Hopefully, this would start the wheels in motion such that I can bow out of a front-line role in this effort and take a back seat, which is where I need to be," Mr. Killingsworth wrote in the e-mail, also addressed to Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans.

In an interview last week, Mr. Killingsworth said the city shifted its position once eminent domain was not included in the council-approved legislative agenda.

"A year ago, we were exploring whether or not eminent domain should be a part of our legislative agenda, and a decision was made for it not to be part of the legislative agenda," Mr. Killingsworth said.

Ms. Suhm said it is not unusual for city officials to discuss numerous potential proposals before a legislative agenda is finalized.

"As we develop a legislative program and we start looking at projects like that, we look at all the possibilities," Ms. Suhm said. "The council did not elect to include that, so it's off the table for us."

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