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We Are Here for You:

IJ Pledges to Defend Pittsburgh Businesses Against Eminent Domain Abuse

By Scott Bullock

We had to keep our cool.

There we were in Pittsburgh, 15 minutes before what we had billed as a "major rally." The Institute for Justice was about to announce our pledge to defend in court small business owners should the City move to take their land through eminent domain. Rain poured down with no alternative site readily available. Half a dozen people lingered about-hardly critical mass for a major rally. The sound system refused to work. Camera crews from each of Pittsburgh's television stations might have wondered if we had over-promised and under-delivered.

Then it happened.

As if on cue, the clouds parted. More than 200 people, many carrying signs of protest against the City, streamed into Market Square where we were to speak. The sound system kicked in. The camera crews readied their equipment for a good story about the shop-owner Davids versus the City government's Goliath.

It all came together.

IJ's rally was prompted by Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy's plan to condemn major portions of downtown-privately owned businesses-so the City could hand it over to a private company, the Chicago-based Urban Retail Properties, for development into an urban shopping mall. The private developer would get the prime real estate along with massive government subsidies. Urban Retail would also reserve its right to pick and choose which stores would fill the mall. Most of the stores that have thus far expressed an interest have included national chains such as The Gap, FAO Schwartz, and Tiffany's, all anchored by an AMC Multiplex Theater. Under Mayor Murphy's plan, more than 60 buildings are slated for condemnation and subsequent leveling. Nearly 125 businesses-some of them operated within families for generations-would be kicked out.

Pittsburgh has become ground zero in the fight over eminent domain law. Increasingly, governments throughout the nation take private property not for public uses (such as roads and utilities), but to give it to other private businesses in the name of economic development. That is why the Institute pledges to defend Pittsburgh property owners in court if the City follows through on its plan.

IJ President Chip Mellor was the first to speak at the rally and made our commitment to defend the property owners known in no uncertain terms.

"We are here to serve notice that the day of the bully is over," he declared to cheers from the crowd. "The City can no longer push around property owners and small businesses and get away with it."

I spoke next, rebutting the Mayor's favorite charge against us: that we are a bunch of "outsiders" intent on telling him how to run "his" City-a charge made famous by Southern segregationists some 40 years ago. Of course, I pointed out the irony of the Mayor and his allies using the outsider smear when they propose to destroy Pittsburgh-based businesses, many of which have been in families for generations, to give to a Chicago developer and national chain stores. I also had a lot of fun with the "outsider" label because I was raised in the Pittsburgh area; my family has lived there for generations; and I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh Law School. To demonstrate my local bona fides, I even did my best Pittsburgh accent for the crowd.

Also along for the rally was IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner, who last year represented Roy and Jeff Kumer when Pittsburgh threatened to condemn their business, Pittsburgh Wool Company, for the Heinz Corp. As readers may recall, that case settled after Heinz contacted the Kumers directly and reached a privately negotiated agreement.

After the lawyers spoke, two of the business owners movingly told the crowd what was at stake in this battle. Bonnie Klein and her husband Aaron own Klein Camera Repair and its building. The building is slated for condemnation and subsequent destruction under the Mayor's plan. The Kleins have three long-term tenants. They work long hours to support themselves and their children. Their building will be paid off in two years, and they love being in the heart of downtown. Their son will begin college soon, and they plan on using the store and the money from tenants to be able to pay for his schooling. They do not want to leave and do not think the City should be allowed to pick and choose which businesses belong downtown. The crowd roared back its approval.

Next up was Patty Maloney. Her family owns the Card Center, another business slated for leveling if the Mayor's plan goes through. She told those assembled how her family's business has been forced to relocate twice before under misguided urban renewal plans. And now, just when the business is starting to get back on its feet, the City wants them to move again. This time, the Maloney family is ready to stand up and fight.

Anchoring the rally was Jerry Bowyer, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a local policy and activist group that has been organizing against passage of the Mayor's plan. He ignited the demonstrators with his speech, stating forcefully that this fight was about more than just these property owners. It was about whether government will treat citizens equally and abide by the rule of law.

And Bowyer is right. The battle over eminent domain abuse is vitally important not only to the affected Pittsburgh businesses, but to all property owners in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation. If the City is allowed to take these businesses to give to a developer favored by the City, then no property is safe. You can never know when your property, your business, or even your home is next on the government's list.

As readers of this newsletter know, the Institute litigates eminent domain issues throughout the country because it is a power that is being abused nationwide. In 1998, the Institute helped win a case on behalf of a widow from Atlantic City whose house was sought by Donald Trump and a New Jersey government agency to turn into a limousine parking lot for a casino. We are currently involved not only in the Pittsburgh controversy, but also in eminent domain cases in Illinois and elsewhere. We will continue to be the nation's leading legal critic of eminent domain laws so long as governments insist on violating the Constitution in carrying out their misguided "renewal" efforts.

Scott Bullock is an Institute senior attorney.

 

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