'Pioneers' put out by Riverfront renaissance: Wilmington DE News Journal, 7/17/07

Small-business owners say they deserve better than eminent domain

By Adam Taylor

A new plan by the city to use eminent domain to condemn as many as 62 properties in southern Wilmington has some of the owners feeling that they are being kicked out of the renaissance taking place in that part of the city.

City officials have a new vision for the part of southern Wilmington near the $200 million Christina Landing development. But their vision of a neighborhood full of town homes, shops and office buildings does not include some of the area's existing businesses, such as Osborne's Auto Service, located across the street from the upscale residential complex.

Owner Ed Osborne said he feels kicked to the curb.

"I was down here when no one else wanted to be," he said. "I keep a clean business, and called the police when pimps and prostitutes were here. I feel as though I was part of the small group of pioneers who stayed to keep this part of the city from becoming totally uninhabitable."

Mayor James M. Baker said the property owners' concerns are "nonsense." The city has to grow, he said, and southern Wilmington is one of the undeveloped places where that can happen.

"This doesn't have anything to do with being mean and arrogant, and smacking people in the belly," he said. "This is the process we need to have in place to begin fair negotiations with them."

If property owners don't sell voluntarily, the city could seek to condemn them. To do that, the city would have to prove, among other things, that there is a shortage of housing in the area, that the properties represent neighborhood blight, and that the acquisition of the properties is needed to meet the new community objectives.

The city would have to make its case at condemnation hearings in Superior Court, and the rulings could be appealed.

Three steps to help plan along
City Council introduced three measures last week to allow the plan to proceed. One is a proposed ordinance to change the South Walnut Street Urban Renewal Plan; the second an Aug. 23 public hearing on the proposed changes; and the third is an agreement for the Riverfront Development Corp. to oversee the changes if they go through. The corporation is a state-funded agency that has overseen a decade of redevelopment on the Christina Riverfront.

The city's Planning Commission will discuss the proposed changes to the urban renewal plan at 6:30 tonight at the Louis L. Redding City/County Building at Eighth and French streets.

There are no residential properties among the 62 the city wants to acquire, and most are vacant.

Using them for homes and shops instead, city and state redevelopment officials think, would help achieve the critical mass needed for a thriving neighborhood. More residents would attract more restaurants, boutiques and other stores necessary to make the decade-long riverfront-transformation experiment a success.

Attorney Rich Abbott represents five of the property owners, including Osborne.

"This is the city's way of getting land on the cheap for the big private developers who have interests in expanding down there," he said.

Chief among those would be Buccini/Pollin Inc., the Wilmington developer responsible for Christina Landing and the $500 million Justison Landing mixed-use development going up on the north side of the river. Rob Buccini acknowledged he's interested in the land and will respond to a request for proposals the Riverfront Development Corp. will issue if the changes are approved by the city.

Buccini said he's confused by the controversy.

"I hope the property owners there are appreciative of the significant wealth that the construction of the Christina Landing development has afforded them," he said. "Before we were there, that land was worth nothing. Now it's worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars an acre or more."

Attorney has alternate plan
Abbott said the city is trying to sneak the changes through in the dead of summer, when people are not paying close attention to government affairs or are away on vacation. Abbott, a former New Castle County councilman, said it's an old trick that works.

Baker said the process has been open and there was no devious plan to put it into the legislative pipeline now.

Buccini said no one should be surprised. Much of the area was rezoned four years ago to pave the way for these changes, and two years ago some of the junkyards in the area were forced to leave.

Earlier this year, the city held a community meeting to address the urban renewal plan. Osborne attended that meeting, but said there was no mention of taking properties by force. The first he realized that could happen was when he got a letter from the city earlier this month announcing tonight's meeting and stating his property might be acquired by the city "using its powers of condemnation as a slum clearance and redevelopment authority."

Abbott said he'd like the opportunity to convince city officials of his alternative idea that would please most of his clients. He said the light industrial zone on now-undeveloped land that is in the plan should be expanded to include frontage on Walnut Street. The existing businesses could relocate there through a land swap.

Baker said it's premature to discuss such things. The city doesn't know how many of the 62 properties it will eventually need and it could be years before the city gets enough money to acquire them.

That's all the more reason the process needs to be slowed down or stopped for now, said state Rep. Dennis P. Williams, D-Wilmington North.

"I support the mayor's effort to move the city into the 21st century, but there has to be fairness across the board," he said. "The city should put a hold on this, and go to the table with each property owner and negotiate with them first."

Baker said the property owners would be paid fair market value for their properties, but Abbott predicts his clients would get much less.

'This place is my life'
Abbott said the values of their businesses aren't factored into the appraisals, and many of them need to stay where they are to retain their customers.

The city's effort comes at a time when city officials have put an unprecedented amount of attention and resources into long-underserved southern Wilmington. There is a comprehensive development plan to revitalize the area during the next 25 years that city officials say the new changes will mesh with. And Southbridge, southern Wilmington's sole residential area, recently was named as the neighborhood that the
Wilmington Hope Commission will saturate with social services in an effort to reduce violent crime.

Osborne said he wants to give his business to his sons, with the possibility of their passing the business down to their children.

"I don't mind being moved nearby, but I don't want to outright sell," he said. "The most important thing in my life is my family, and this little piece of dirt I own has allowed me to provide for them. A little bit of money won't help me be able to pass on my family business. This place is my life.

"I feel like I'm being stripped of anything I worked for in my life, including being part of this community."

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