Owners fight city demolition plan

Mercy hospital wants site seized for project

April 06, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Baltimore officials are proposing to use the city's power of condemnation to demolish a law office building and restaurant so a downtown hospital can expand, prompting complaints the city is abusing its authority.

A pending City Council bill would enable Mercy Medical Center to build a cancer treatment center on land occupied by an office building and the Park Place Deli at 233 St. Paul Place.

But owners of the targeted property complain that the city should use its power of eminent domain only when it has a public purpose for taking properties -- such as clearing slums or building public roads, parks or garages.

The critics say that's not the case with this proposal, which would use condemnation for the benefit of one private entity, the hospital, over another, the office building owners.

"I think it's unfair. The hospital is backdooring us by going through the city to condemn us instead of talking to us face to face," said Matt Vigil, who has turned his 11-year-old deli into a shrine to Native American culture, with photographs of chiefs on the walls and a tomahawk behind the counter.

No date has been set for a vote on the bill, which has been introduced for the administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley, and is being debated by the City Council's Urban and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.

City development officials say they are confident that the proposed condemnation would meet the legal requirement of serving a "public purpose."

"You can't look up `public purpose' in a Webster's dictionary. The definition has evolved under years of case law. It's a judgment call," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corporation, the city's development agency.

Mercy Medical Center, which is across Saratoga Street from the deli, wants the 98-year-old building demolished so it could use the land for the possible construction of a $30 million, five-story, 67,000- square-foot building, according to a Sept. 15 consultants' report written for the hospital.

The new building would house cancer treatment and women's health programs. But instead of negotiating with the owner to buy the land, the hospital is looking to the city to condemn the property and turn it over to the hospital, the report says.

East of the 233 St. Paul Place building, on what is now a parking lot in the 200 block of N. Calvert St., the hospital would build an 800-space parking garage to be used by employees of Mercy and nearby Provident Bank.

`Perverted and wrongful use'

The condemnation proposal has angered the building's owners, who are threatening a federal lawsuit to block it.

"This is a perverted and wrongful use of the power of eminent domain," said Stuart Snyder, an attorney and part-owner of the 233 St. Paul Place building. "The city is using public condemnation to play favorites among private entities."

City Council President Sheila Dixon said she wants Mercy to negotiate directly with Snyder and the other owners instead of going through the city.

"I don't think this is the right use of the power of condemnation," Dixon said.

Under pressure from City Council members, such talks have recently begun -- although it's unclear if they will be productive, Snyder said.

`Build ... signature building'

Gary Michael, a senior vice president at Mercy, said the hospital has not made a final decision about whether to move forward with the proposal.

"We hope to build a new signature building that will house cancer services and women's health" care, Michael said. "At this point, the negotiations and talks about the process are still under way."

The bill would condemn four buildings, three of which are vacant (229 St. Paul Place, 105 E. Saratoga and 107 E. Saratoga). The fourth, 233 St. Paul Place, has at least six lawyers and 12 other employees working in it. Its owners say they have spent more than $600,000 restoring its original early-1900s style, with elegant wood paneling, railings and floors.

Vigil, 37, who runs the deli on the first floor, is a chef and an amateur Native American historian; he also lectures at local schools. He lives in Glen Burnie but grew up in Colorado as a member of the Capote tribe of southern Ute people.

`It's not right'

Vigil's restaurant is plastered with photographs of tribal dancers. He plays tapes of Native American chants for his customers instead of rock music, and he serves homemade herbal tea along with such standard deli fare as eggs, lasagna and corned beef.

Vigil said it's unfair that the city may be putting him out of business after years of working 3:45 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week, without vacations.

"We've toughed it out here for 11 1/2 years, through break-ins, high rent, high taxes, because we wanted to work here in the city," Vigil said. "But I don't want to stay in the city after being treated like this. It's not right."

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