Eminently Troubling

As city officials step up their use of condemnation powers, some property owners are fighting back


AMID THE THREE — Amid the three- and four-story, crumbling brick buildings on West Lexington Street, shoppers sift through racks of clothing on the sidewalk, hunt for bargains in bins of 88-cent paper towels at the Lot Store's closing sale and tote their purchases past mostly vacant, boarded or gated storefronts.

A handbag and hat merchant moves buckets to catch rainwater dripping through his collapsed ceiling. Around the corner from the shuttered Greyhound bus station on West Fayette, the owner's son presides over an empty counter at Paul's Luncheonette.

This forlorn stretch encompassing the Lexington Street pedestrian mall is the latest battleground between a city aggressively pursuing redevelopment and a resistant property owner, in this case the $2 billion Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

After years of fruitless negotiations, the foundation, owner of more than half the land in the stalled "superblock" project on downtown's west side, has been warned to either sell its properties to the city or face their seizure.

Although taking on an adversary as influential and powerful as the Weinberg Foundation is unusual, seizing property for redevelopment is not. Baltimore has used its power of condemnation for the past four decades to shape renewal projects from Charles Center to the Inner Harbor.

Now, officials are moving with increased energy.

The Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, is working to acquire several hundred properties for projects scattered all over the city, according to M.J. "Jay" Brodie, BDC president. Over the past decade, the BDC acquired 500 to 600 properties for development projects, he estimated.

The city's Housing Department also is claiming real estate. It has acquired 6,169 properties since 2001, 1,001 of those through condemnation. Many have been purchased to clear the way for the remaking of the blighted Middle East neighborhood near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"We see the opportunity for development and a lot more interest from developers, builders and retailers, more than I've ever seen, but the interest can't equate to projects unless we are assembling sites," Brodie said. Without the power of eminent domain, "there would be holdouts of property which would make the larger picture of redevelopment impossible to achieve."

The taking of private property for economic development was given a powerful boost by a Supreme Court decision a year ago in which the court backed the town of New London, Conn.'s power to seize homes in an unblighted area to make way for a new convention center, hotel, condos and shops.

The ruling affirmed the legality of the increasing use of eminent domain for urban redevelopment, a popular trend in the Northeast, where many cities are battling long-standing urban blight.

Property-rights activists and advocates for poor city residents have argued in the New London case and others since that taking land from a private owner is a violation of the Constitution's Fifth Amendment, which forbids the taking of property by government except for "public use."

The Institute for Justice, which represented the New London homeowners, said cities and towns have taken the Supreme Court decision as a green light to freely condemn properties. Since June 2005, municipalities have condemned or threatened to condemn 4,000 properties, the institute reports.

"Obviously, in court, things have gotten a lot more difficult for home and business owners, because the [Supreme] Court said, `At the end of the day, there's no protection left,'" said Bert Gall, an attorney with the institute.

But using eminent domain can save cities like Baltimore years and high costs of lengthy negotiations with multiple property owners for big projects, said John McIlwain, a senior fellow for housing at the Washington-based Urban Land Institute. Still, the taking sets up a classic conflict between community needs and individual rights, he acknowledges.

"Like any powerful tool, it can accomplish important results and it can also be abused," McIlwain said. "But it's essential for cities to constantly revitalize neighborhoods. Any city that can't revitalize neighborhoods is going to go on a death spiral."

Brodie said the ability to acquire properties is pivotal to Baltimore's efforts to get developers to take on challenging projects and to create new jobs and desirable homes that attract residents and spark new life in the city.

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