Residents question University's use of eminent domain in expanding med school: Washington University Student Life, St Louis MO, 10/3/07

By Perry Stein

A significant number of complaints have been filed against the Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation regarding its alleged abuse of eminent domain, according to Missouri's Ombudsman of Eminent Domain Anthony Martin.

"It's been decimating these black neighborhoods," said Martin.

Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation's (WUMCRC) stated mission is to revitalize the structures and neighborhoods surrounding the University's medical campus.

To achieve that goal, it is empowered to use eminent domain because it has been classified as a 353-redevelopment corporation under an old Missouri state law.

"They have been grandfathered into an old law," said Martin. "The new law says that a city government has to vote to use eminent domain."

Eminent domain is defined as the power of a state to seize private property for public use.

Although many of the complaints appear to be directed towards WUMCRC, Brian Phillips, executive director of the Washington University medical center, said the corporation has not used eminent domain since 1999.

"We have not used it in quite a while," said Phillips. "It is definitely available to us, and we take the use of it very seriously."

Despite this, Martin said people's properties are being seized and blighted in order to benefit the University's medical campus.

This is, in part, made possible through Cortex, a non-profit organization jointly created by five education institutions, including St. Louis University and Washington University, that develops property in order to expand research institutions.

"[Washington University] cannot claim they have clean hands," said Paul Henry, an eminent domain lawyer at Denlow and Henry who represents property owners whose properties have been condemned by Cortex.

The Cortex district consists of several hundred acres of land located between the area of St. Louis University Hospital and Washington University's hospital, Barnes Jewish Children's.

While Phillips said Cortex is a separate entity from the University, Henry said that Washington University is a powerful part of Cortex and St. Louis.

"The reason why Cortex is there is to allow the hospital to expand," said Henry. "The ties between Wash. U. and Cortex are extraordinarily strong."

Cortex was not able to comment for this article before press time. However, William Danforth, former Washington University chancellor, was quoted on its Web site.

"Cortex is an idea whose time has come. The district is a huge step forward for St. Louis and is a critical component of the redevelopment of the entire area," said Danforth.

Both homeowners and business owners have been affected by the use of eminent domain for universities' development.

Shenise Pruitt, a mother and homeowner in the Central West End since 1994, said she received a letter of intent from a developer in 2004 stating he wanted her property to build more labs for a university.

"It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it's for the students they just feel like they can take the property," said Pruitt.

According to Pruitt, she had her home appraised for $410,000. However, the developer only had her home appraised for $215,000.

"If you have a mortgage for more than they offer you can't accept the offer," said Pruitt.

Pruitt also operated a licensed daycare center from her home but was forced to close it when her clients left and her property was eventually blighted.

"They demolished my business so badly that my clients left," said Pruitt. "My neighbors are going through this too. This is the worst I've ever seen my block. I haven't seen any of these movements. Why plant a flower when you know they are going to bulldoze your house?"

Pruitt said she believes that obtaining property in this manner will not be beneficial for students in the long run.

"The developers don't realize they are putting their students at risk. You don't want someone to lose their mind [and hurt a student] because they have no home," said Pruitt.

Martin said he hopes that University students learn about this issue and start to raise awareness.

"They are not breaking any laws because they have to go through courts to do this. It's a moral issue," said Martin. "They don't have to answer to anyone except the students, [the] public and social [community]."

Washington University Student Life, St Louis MO: http://media.www.studlife.com