Ever since Newark officials announced their plans to seize private property for a downtown condominium project four years ago, property owners on Mulberry Street have been fighting City Hall.
But they believed they would have an ally in City Hall when Mayor Cory Booker was elected last year.
The Booker administration, however, defended in court Friday a city council resolution declaring the area blighted, which opens the door for condemnation and the seizure of private property. Those designations were made by former Mayor Sharpe James' administration and approved by the previous council.
"They ran on a platform of reform," said George Mytrowitz, the leader of the Mulberry Street Coalition, which wants the courts to toss out the resolution. "They wanted to change things."
Booker, in a statement released by his press secretary, defended the classification.
"The designation of this area as one in need of redevelopment is appropriate and was designated only after extensive investigation, discussions and public hearings," Booker said. "We have always maintained that the use of eminent domain is one tool in our toolbox for redevelopment and will only be used as a last resort."
As a candidate for mayor, Booker was often critical of "cozy relationships" between politicians and developers, a relationship he said opened the door for land grabs. This, say Mulberry Street residents, is what happened in this case.
According to the plaintiffs, attorneys, relatives and consultants affiliated with developers Bruce Wishnia and Emilio Farina donated an additional $53,325 to some council members when critical decisions were made on the project between May 2003 and January 2004.
The lawsuit singles out former councilwoman Bessie Walker, whom Farina worked for and councilman Hector Corchado, who accepted $900 from Farina to pay for a band at his birthday fundraiser in 2005.
Asked whether Booker is defending those relationships, his spokeswoman Lupe Todd said: "We're not looking at who gave political contributions to whom. We're looking forward. Looking forward is the best option for the city."
The crux of the case focuses on the 166 lots cast across eight blocks within walking distance from the federal courthouse, Newark post office and City Hall. According to a study conducted by the city, about 60 percent of those properties are parking lots that are occupying prime real estate that could be better used to boost the city's economy.
The parking lots, argued David A. Clark, an attorney from Gluck Walrath, hired to represent Newark, do not contribute to the economic value of the city.
"Newark is the largest city in the state," Clark said on Friday in arguments made before Judge Marie P. Simonelli. "Of the 14 acres here, 60 percent of the land is tied up."
John Buonocore, attorney for the Mulberry residents, said the redevelopment law does not allow the government to grab land simply because it feels the land could be used for higher and better uses.
Using that logic, said Buono core, would put landmarks such as Drumthwacket, the Princeton residence of the governor, at jeopardy.
"If this designation stands, the floodgates are open," Buonocore said. "Any area in any town in any state is subject to redevelopment. This is especially egregious because the people making the decision are biased because they were being paid large sums of money."
Buonocore disputed the city's figure about the parking lots, arguing only 30 percent of the land is used for that reason. The rest of the neighborhood, he said, is a thriving one of businesses, restaurants and homeowners who pay their bills and maintain the area.
"There are none of the conditions that the court holds forth that an area is considered blighted," he said.
The former administration, argue the plaintiffs, was in favor of the project even before the formal application process got underway and ensured that it would sail through the approvals process.
Simonelli said she will issue a detailed decision on the case, but is not sure when.
The courts have gone both ways on the issue of eminent domain. In Bloomfield, residents were successful in defeating the township's at tempt to condemn a Washington Street property for a condominium complex.
A Superior Court judge ruled in August 2005 the township redevelopment planning process was riddled with problems and failed to prove the Washington Street area was blighted. An appellate court upheld that ruling.
But in Long Branch, residents have not fared as well. Long Branch officials are proposing to build a $1 billion redevelopment project and are eyeing two dozen beachfront homes for the project.
So far, the courts have sided with Long Branch and residents say they are determined to take their case to the Supreme Court if necessary.
At the federal level, though, the courts have sided with the government on the issue. In Kelo vs. City of New London, Conn., the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that municipalities have the right to knock down people's homes to spur development and generate tax revenue.
Newark NJ Star-Ledger: http://www.nj.com/news/ledger