Businesses sue city in southwest renewal

Plan to condemn, seize sites is flawed, owners say

December 14, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Six owners whose businesses would be acquired as part of a major Southwest Baltimore revitalization plan sued the city yesterday, contending that their properties should not be seized because they are not blighted and that the ordinance allowing the city to condemn the parcels through eminent domain is flawed.

The six businesses are among 14 commercial properties in a two-acre patch of land known as The Triangle that borders the sprawling, vacant Uplands Apartments complex south of Edmondson Avenue near the Baltimore County line. The city wants to raze the businesses, along with the apartments, and create a mixed-income development of nearly 700 newly constructed detached homes, condominiums and apartments.

The city also wants to relocate the adjacent New Psalmist Baptist Church and buy an additional church-owned parcel that would double the acreage available for development and create an additional 400 housing units. Together, city officials say, the parcels would be the largest new residential development in the city in decades.

In the lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court, the businesses ask the court to declare that their properties should not be seized under a recently enacted ordinance creating the Uplands Renewal Area, in part because such action would violate their constitutional rights. It also asks that the city take no steps toward condemnation of the properties until the litigation is resolved.

"The biggest issue is the question of blight," said John C. Murphy, an attorney who represents the businesses -- an insurance agent, a chiropractor, an automobile repair shop, a gas station, a home health care business and a pizza parlor. "Urban renewal is there to cover blighted or slum properties. Uplands [Apartments] fits that category, not The Triangle."

But City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler discounted the lawsuit, calling it the "ultimate scattershot complaint" and saying that the city believed the law that authorized the condemnation is valid and the "assertion that the ordinance is somehow unconstitutional is false."

"The city has proceeded carefully and lawfully with the Uplands project," Tyler added. "I'm confident the ultimate disposition of this litigation will be favorable to the city."

The Uplands redevelopment plan also is facing a challenge filed last year in federal court by former tenants of the low-income apartment complex who contend that the housing proposed for the site is too expensive to allow them to return. Three months ago, a federal judge asked officials of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to reconsider the fair-housing implications of the terms of the agency's transfer of the vacant complex to the city, and lawyers for HUD, the city and the tenants have been in settlement talks in an effort to resolve the issue.

The Baltimore Circuit Court lawsuit is the second in two weeks that Murphy has filed on behalf of businesses that would be condemned as part of city redevelopment projects.

On Nov. 29, Murphy filed suit on behalf of nine small businesses whose properties would be condemned as part of the development of the so-called superblock that is part of the west-side renaissance. The suit asks the court to void the choice of four developers for the block by the Baltimore Development Corp. on the grounds that the city's economic development agency violated the state open-meetings law by making its decision in private.

At a City Council hearing last month to consider the Upland renewal ordinance, Murphy and some of his clients said the required compensation for condemned properties under federal and state law wouldn't be enough to cover the loss of their investment.

But city officials and community leaders said many of the businesses were eyesores and that their condemnation was needed to provide an attractive gateway to the Uplands project and ensure the success of the redevelopment.

Plans also call for 150 housing units to be built on The Triangle.

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