8/27/2006

Surprise — Eminent domain can work: Philadelphia PA Daily News, 8/18/06

Opinion

By Elmer Smith

EMINENT DOMAIN. Sounds like something chiseled on those tablets Moses brought down from the mountain.

It has the overarching authority to make you move when you want to stay. It's how big cities uproot little people for what they call "the greater good."

When it's wielded recklessly by ham-fisted, narrowly focused bureaucrats, it steamrolls the people in its path the way the bulldozers flatten their homes.

Growing up in West Philly in what we came to know as the "urban removal" era of the late '50s, I had a healthy distrust of grand schemes and grand schemers.

Cynthia Warren did too. She, her husband, James, and their eight children were in their first house for two years when the winds of change blew down her block.

The Goldenberg Group, a developer new to the city, had grand plans for the 5100 block of Jefferson Street, including a mall with the first supermarket in the area that anyone could remember.

"We kept hearing about all these plans," she said. "They had aerial photos. But nobody told us.

"I felt like we were being undermined."

Diane Marshall knows that feeling.

"I grew up here," she said. "When you've been in a place for a long time and they want to uproot you, it is devastating. You wonder, 'Why are they coming here?'

"Senior citizens who were in their homes for many years had to get a mortgage. It was hard. But, at the end of the day, it worked in my favor."

It worked in almost everyone's favor. But it took a long process of planning and paying careful attention to the concerns of area residents.

"We've been taking the last year and a half setting up the relocations, walking people through properties that would be suitable to them," said Leslie Smallwood, the Goldenberg Group's development director.

"We helped people clear titles, we did credit counseling. The Carroll Park Community Council helped us get mortgages at subprime rates. Parkside Community Association and Community Ventures had just finished rehabbing some properties on Parkside Avenue.

"We provided instant capital for their project; they provided places for some of our relocations."

Call it a harmonic convergence. The original project would only have been a 100,000-square-foot mall with a supermarket. When they couldn't attract one, they increased the scope of the mall to include the biggest Lowe's store in any urban setting in America.

Growing from 12 acres to 30 acres, it became the thing that ate Parkside, including a couple of dozen homes that stood in the path of progress.

There were 26 families that were displaced. Eight families found homes in the rehabbed Parkside Community Association and Community Ventures properties. Another nine vacant homes were condemned. And the Goldenberg Group helped the others find better-than-even swaps.

"It was a combination of great planning, some wonderful people and little luck," said Michael Nutter, who represented the area in City Council before resigning last month to run for mayor.

"The preferred route is amicable settlements," Nutter said, "but sometimes you have to take a property. When you can't reach a settlement, taxpayers' dollars have to be protected, too.

"It can't turn into a bonanza."

It felt like a bonanza to the Warrens. They lost a well-kept but cramped 1300-square-foot home and got a huge house on Bryn Mawr Avenue five minutes away.

"We've come out better than whole," James Warren said. "It's a six-bedroom, five-bathroom, three-story stone house with a two-car garage.

"They [Goldenberg Group] showed us houses all over the area, in Yeadon and Delaware County.

"But we got to stay in our neighborhood. They took their time and treated us with respect."


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