5/26/2007

Campbell denies secrecy in Flats project: Cleveland OH Plain Dealer, 5/15/07

By Tom Breckenridge

[Former Cleveland mayor] Jane Campbell on Monday rejected any notion that she and her top staff worked secretly and illegally to pave the way for developer Scott Wolstein and a proposed $230 million redevelopment of the east bank of the Flats.

Testifying in Cuyahoga County Probate Court, the former mayor said Wolstein was a significant land owner in the Flats and the only developer with a comprehensive plan to achieve the city's goals of new housing downtown and improved access to the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie.

"No one else came forward with a plan that had enough merit," Campbell said.

The former mayor was called to testify as the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority is suing to acquire 11 parcels north of the Main Avenue bridge. The port is working with the city and Wolstein on a plan to raze the one-time party central and build a $230 million neighborhood, with 300-plus dwellings and a park, boardwalk and marina.

Property owners, including businessman Tony George and developer James Kassouf, argue that the port is trying to seize their land at an unfair price and give it to a favored developer. It's an unconstitutional taking of land under eminent domain law, they argue.

In questioning Campbell, lawyers for property owners noted that Campbell and Wolstein first talked of a Flats development in 2002, long before a public announcement of the project in spring 2005. They noted that Wolstein's late father, Bert, wrote in a 2004 biography that the city would have to use eminent domain to purchase land not owned by the Wolsteins.

Lawyer Kenneth Seminatore noted that Kassouf had proposed high-rise housing on his Flats property and that other big developers would probably be interested in east bank development.

But Campbell's administration never solicited bids or proposals for the community-development plan, as required by law, Seminatore argued. And her top staff worked behind closed doors for months with Wolstein's company, without any public hearings.

Campbell said there was no law requiring the city to solicit bids. And she said her staff worked Wolstein's plan the same way it did any big proposal, by gathering information and gauging public subsidies to decide if the project was even feasible.

Lawyers for property owners argued that Wolstein's exclusive grip on the east bank was evident in the city's 2004 master plan for lakefront development. It calls for housing, a boardwalk and other features that Wolstein had been pitching, lawyers noted.

Campbell acknowledged the two plans "are consistent," but she said those features emerged from dozens of public meetings.

"People liked that idea - mixed uses and public access" to the water, Campbell said.

Lawyers for property owners also contested the city's decision to have the port handle eminent domain, even though the city already had crafted a community-development plan for the project and had completed a blight study on two dozen buildings.

The lawyers have argued that Campbell and City Council illegally delegated their power to the port to avoid the political fallout that comes with eminent domain. By law, the city first should have asked voters if it could turn over the power of eminent domain to the port, lawyers said.

Campbell said there was no law requiring such a vote. The port was the logical choice for eminent domain because the port board includes both city and county representatives and the port has lots of experience in economic development, she said.


Cleveland OH Plain Dealer: http://www.cleveland.com/news/plaindealer