For more than two decades, Anthony Li's hobby shop has been a tradition of sorts.
"I've seen third generations now," Li said sitting inside his tightly packed 2,000-square-foot storefront, Tony's Hobbies and Toys, on Hacienda Boulevard.
Li's shop is crammed with nearly every tool imaginable to create, decorate or upgrade toy planes, cars and boats, and it attracts die-hard enthusiasts from all over - Santa Monica, San Diego, Arizona.
But that may soon change if La Puente officials have their way.
Attorneys for the city filed paperwork Monday with Los Angeles Superior Court to acquire the 2.7-acre parcel where Li's shop sits through eminent domain for the construction of a commercial retail center. The filing marks the first time in La Puente's 50-year history the city has attempted to take land through these means.
Eminent domain allows cities to obtain private property to eliminate blight or for redevelopment.
The property, at 1313-1335 N. Hacienda Blvd., includes a strip mall where Li's shop and nearly a dozen other small businesses front the main thoroughfare. Behind the retailers, a patch of open land - making up about two-thirds of the entire property - has been vacant for more than 40 years, Assistant City Manager Gregg Yamachika said.
Since September, city officials have been trying to buy the land from Victor Gudzunas. According to assistant agency counsel Catrina Archuleta, the city originally offered $3.5 million. She said the land is now appraised at $3.8 million.
Negotiations were unsuccessful.
"We made an offer to purchase the property and he was not willing to negotiate with us," Yamachika said. "And we needed the property ... in order to make the project work."
Gudzunas did not return calls for comment.
The lawsuit states the property's seizure is necessary in order to eliminate blight - namely the undeveloped patch of land behind the strip mall - and to complete an 11.5-acre commercial center with retail shops and mezzanine parking along Hacienda Boulevard at Fairgrove Avenue.
On Tuesday the City Council voted 4-0 to approve a 180-day exclusive negotiating contract with the Los Angeles-based Charles Co. to develop the project.
Councilman Louie Lujan was absent from the meeting.
At the site of the redevelopment project, the city has already demolished the former La Puente Lanes bowling alley in an effort to move forward with plans.
"This project has been in the works for the last two years ... Without that particular parcel of land the project is in jeopardy," Lujan said Monday. "It's not to say that a project will not get done, but it is to say that the project we have in mind will not get done."
At the strip mall, JRCRealty and Financial Services owner Jose Cabrales admits a move would be a major inconvenience for businesses. But he also said he understands the city's stance.
"I can understand their position," Cabrales said. "Obviously, they want to get as much revenue as they can."
Other business owners were not as sympathetic.
"Just because someone owns land and doesn't want to build on it, does that give the right to the city to come in and take it?" asked Ed Lara, who owns Henry's Shoe Experience.
Lara said the patch of land behind the strip mall is only an eyesore now because the city tore down the old bowling alley, making the area visible from the street. He believes a strip mall in La Puente would not work.
"People drive through La Puente, they don't stop in La Puente," Lara said.
But the biggest concerns come in the hardships businesses will face if forced to relocate, Li said.
"Where can I find this kind of rent with this kind of frontage?" he asked.
Li said he will have to find another location for his shop, but a move will probably amount to a substantial financial loss.
The city will offer some sort of relocation assistance to businesses if it comes to that, Lujan said, adding that the city understands the troubles business owners may face if forced to leave.
"I wish we could make everyone happy, but I think what we can do rather than looking at it as a win-lose situation, we have to look at it as a compromise," he said.
Eminent domain is a tool that has been around for decades used to build everything from freeways and schools to redevelopment projects, said Ken MacVey, an attorney with Best Best and Krieger who specializes in eminent domain law.
"It's not unusual, but not a common practice in that the vast majority of land acquisition is handled by negotiation," he said.
He estimates about 98 percent of eminent domain filings settle out of court.
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