5/16/2006

Columbia Heights meets eminent domain: Duluth (MN) News Tribune, 4/15/06

City officials in the Twin Cities community believe the use of eminent domain is vital to improving the area

By Patrick Condon, Associated Press

This small suburb [Columbia Heights MN] contains the highest elevations in the Twin Cities, with hilltops that offer smashing views of the Minneapolis skyline just to the south.

But there's not much else to attract new residents or businesses to Columbia Heights. High crime rates, crumbling buildings and vast swaths of grimy industrial wasteland have helped to make property values lower on average than in any other Twin Cities community, and its main business corridor along Central Avenue is pocked with vacant storefronts, dingy discount outlets and trash-strewn parking lots.

"We're at the bottom of the food chain here," said Bob Streetar, the city's director of community development.

It's Streetar's job to change that. That's why he's so worried about bills barreling through the Legislature to put strict limits on government's ability to seize private property through a process called eminent domain. Streetar said eminent domain is the most important tool he has in trying to make Columbia Heights a better place.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government has wide power to seize private property and turn it over to other private owners. Since then lawmakers in states like Minnesota have rushed to make it harder, as critics bring forward story after story of homeowners and businessmen forced under government's thumb by eminent domain.

Take Gary Graham, who with his wife has operated a quilting shop for the past five years in Rosemount, another Twin Cities suburb using eminent domain to spiff up its image. The Grahams face eviction as Rosemount seeks to tear down several houses to make room for a large residential, retail and office development.

The owner of several properties that include the Grahams' business doesn't want to sell, but the city can force it by using current eminent domain laws. It's that power that most angers critics of eminent domain, who say it's unfair that government can force a private owner to sell his property to another private owner.

"We're just disappointed that the city is basically saying we're not as important as new development," Graham said. "We don't want to move. We don't want to be in a strip mall."

But city officials in places like Columbia Heights say there's another side to the story.

In the past few years, Columbia Heights has used eminent domain — or the threat of it — on several major redevelopment projects aimed at improving the city and boosting its tax base. Currently, one-fifth of the city's population is older than 55 years old, and 50 percent of its housing was built before 1960.

"We're a community that is wearing out," Streetar said.

The city has claimed large portions of a former industrial park just south of its downtown that was once home to Honeywell and a steel foundry. Now, it's a barren eyesore and an environmental hazard.

"You had a guy storing old snowplows back there, abandoned semi-trailers, boarded buildings covered by gang graffiti," said Randy Schumacher, the city official overseeing the area's conversion into a condominium complex. "We called it little Afghanistan."

The city also claimed a vacant Kmart store on Central Avenue, now the site of the Grand Central Lofts.

Under the changes to eminent domain now being considered in the House and Senate, Streetar said, those two projects would have been difficult or impossible. He said standards are set almost impossibly high for getting property designated as blighted or environmentally contaminated — a necessary designation if property is to be transferred to new private owners, like those undertaking the condo projects.

Columbia Heights officials are also worried about projects under way right now, particularly a ramshackle strip mall on top of a former dump site that they'd like to see torn down. They also would someday like to tackle a neighborhood of run-down rental houses and duplexes, across the street from the former Kmart site, that they said has long been a magnet for drug dealers and prostitutes.

Without strong eminent domain capabilities, Streetar said, he fears that the mostly absentee landlords who own those properties will be able to hold out for inflated sale prices.

But Streetar knows his side is losing the argument at the Capitol.

The challenges facing Columbia Heights are not unusual, and can be found in inner-city neighborhoods, aging suburbs and small cities in the rest of Minnesota. Laura Harris, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, predicted that lawmakers are setting up the state for years of litigation over the types of economic development projects that cities say they need to survive.

"I don't see the long-term view being taken," Harris said. "There are going to be unintended consequences."


Duluth News Tribune: http://www.duluthsuperior.com