High court upholds eminent domain

Acquisitions fueled a rebirth

City Reaction

June 24, 2005|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Baltimore, which for decades has relied on the power of condemnation to shape its much heralded renaissance, will continue to seize properties when necessary to assemble parcels large enough to attract private development, officials said yesterday.

Yesterday's Supreme Court decision backing localities' use of eminent domain to foster economic revitalization removes any lingering doubt about the future of Baltimore renewal projects that depend upon the city's ability to acquire private property, development officials said.

"We're pleased the court saw the purpose of using this power - a significant power - in a way to achieve public policy objectives and to create jobs and tax revenue," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. "But it should still be used judiciously."

Baltimore has either condemned properties or, backed by the power to seize properties, acquired them through negotiation for the continuing redevelopment of the city's west side, anchored by the renovated Hippodrome Theatre and Bank of America's Centerpoint retail and residential project.

The city is taking the same approach to transform a blighted neighborhood of hundreds of predominantly vacant homes near the Johns Hopkins medical campus in East Baltimore into a biotech park and new homes.

"Without the availability of eminent domain, we would not have the opportunity here in East Baltimore to take what is an extremely physically deteriorated and economically challenged community and have the tools needed to transform that to create a better quality of life," said Jack Shannon, president and chief executive officer of East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit overseeing the project.

Yesterday's high court decision backing the right of New London, Conn., to bulldoze private homes to make way for a riverfront hotel, health club and offices should help quicken the pace of redevelopment of the city's west side, said Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of Westside Renaissance Inc. The city is moving to acquire properties in the "superblock" bounded by Howard, Liberty, Fayette and Lexington streets to transform it into housing, shops, parking and possibly offices.

"If there was any hesitation because of the [pending] Supreme Court case, any question is removed, and we should expect to see things proceeding in a timely fashion," Kreitner said.

John C. Murphy, an attorney who represents about 20 property and business owners on the west side, said owners of small but flourishing businesses often get unfairly caught in the middle of such plans.

"This decision does not help us," said Murphy of yesterday's court ruling. His west-side clients include small shops, carryouts and variety stores.

Murphy also represents eight business owners fighting a city plan to acquire their properties as part of a major Southwest Baltimore revitalization project that will transform the vacant Uplands Apartments south of Edmondson Avenue into a mixed-income development of single-family homes, condominiums and apartments. The business owners in the Triangle, which borders the Uplands, argue that the city should not be able to seize their properties because they are not blighted.

The business owners, mainly immigrants, are "all wonderful people, and not one of them deserves to be condemned," Murphy said. "I was hopeful about this [Supreme Court] case, and this is going to make our life harder. It's the little guy who gets condemned, it's not the big businesses."

In Baltimore County, then-County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's redevelopment strategy for the Middle River-Essex area ignited a fierce battle in 2000. Voters petitioned to referendum a bill to expand the county's condemnation powers and soundly defeated it.

Still, current and former development officials said yesterday that without eminent domain Baltimore would lack some of its most defining features, from the Inner Harbor waterfront to the office towers in Charles Center.

"Baltimore wouldn't be where it is today," said Robert C. Embry Jr., Abell Foundation president and one-time head of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.

Over about five years, the city bought properties on roughly 150 acres around the harbor, some abandoned, others operating businesses. Eminent domain made it possible for planners to realign streets in such a way as to create public access to the waterfront and build a brick promenade. "The use of eminent domain was crucial" to that effort, said Brodie, who from 1968 to 1984 was a deputy and then commissioner of the housing and community development agency. "If we hadn't assembled all of this through eminent domain, then there would be no public edge of the water."

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