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Blight Makes Right? 

Is eminent domain being abused in Alhambra?

Thursday, Jun 30 2005
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A rather large mural depicting the famed Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, graces the front of artist Hanaa Al-Wardi’s two-story, white stucco building near Alhambra’s Main Street corridor.

“It took me one year to do it,” says Al-Wardi as she stands outside the building she bought with her husband in 1977, seven years after the couple moved to Los Angeles from Iraq. Al-Wardi painstakingly painted each of the turquoise and brown ceramic stone tiles of the 25-by-5-foot mural. In 1990, the couple spent an additional $500,000 to rebuild the entire building after the Whittier earthquake. “This is like our home. We built it and designed it. It is very personal.”

Inside the 3,500-square-foot space is her husband’s neurology clinic as well as the HA Art Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Arab Art, which displays an impressive collection of Al-Wardi’s colorful ceramic plates, vases and large paintings depicting life in Iraq. Her latest exhibit, “Color Melody,” was shown at Alhambra City Hall in June 2002.

“Isn’t that ironic,” she says with a smile.

What’s ironic is that in March, the city of Alhambra gave the Al-Wardis notice that her property is targeted for demolition as part of the city’s “West Main Street Corridor” redevelopment plan. Also in the city’s sights are a dozen other businesses along a five-block stretch of Main Street between Second Street and Atlantic Boulevard, including a dry cleaner, a grocery store and a couple of body shops. The city has slated 6,000 square feet of upscale stores and 69 luxury-condo units for Al-Wardi’s block. Last July, the Alhambra City Council approved a plan to hire an architect to prepare a master plan and environmental-impact report.

This doesn’t exactly bear out the “don’t worry, be happy” reaction from legal observers in California to last week’s Supreme Court decision, which stretched the definition of eminent domain to allow government to take property from private landowners with or without a “blight” designation as long as there is some kind of public use, which can be defined by a city as anything from a shopping mall to a new condo project. Under California law, a redevelopment agency can condemn property only in a “blighted” area.

You’d have a hard time convincing some folks in Alhambra, however, that the restriction is much of a protection against arbitrary land grabs. Alhambra designated a mile-and-a-half stretch on Main Street as blighted in 1981. “To create a redevelopment area you have to determine that there are elements of blight,” said Michael Martin, the city of Alhambra’s director of development services. “It does not mean every single project. It is up to the discretion of the redevelopment-agency board to come up with the findings. That area is in poor shape and doesn’t fit with the evolution of the downtown in its current format.”

City officials want to bring in white-collar workers and young, affluent residents who would patronize Main Street restaurants on weekdays. The new developments are also projected to increase the city’s tax base by raising the total value of the properties to as much as $400 million.

In 1981, Martin said the blight findings dealt with a general lack of maintenance, inappropriate usage, and buildings that were dilapidated or vacant or in need of general repair. It matters little that the Al-Wardis rebuilt their building on their own just a decade ago. “It is an enhancement to the area,” says Al-Wardi, “and the city acknowledged that.”

According to Sam Staley, an economist with the Reason Foundation, using a blighted designation to invoke eminent domain has been increasingly common since the 1980s. “You would expect a blighted neighborhood would have high crime rates and low property values. In California, neighborhoods have been considered blighted that have been strong economically,” says Staley. “In California, the standards are so loose that you can have a business that is fixed up, but it can still be targeted for redevelopment.”

Next to Al-Wardi’s art gallery is D’Arcy Coach Works, a fixture on the block since 1956. The body shop, which leases the property, is one of the oldest businesses in Alhambra and also refurbished since the Whittier earthquake. “A body shop can’t be easily moved. The chances are we won’t survive. It is just typical Alhambra politics,” said the shop’s vice president, Gary Bryant. “They are notoriously corrupt. Once the city decides they want your property, you are at their mercy, and now they have ammunition with the recent Supreme Court ruling. Eminent domain has been strengthened. They can buy your property and turn it over to someone else who wants to make a profit. All the city has to do is say it is blighted whether it is or not.”

Martin says that no decisions have been made yet. He says the project will reach full council by January 2006 and, if it passes, is to be completed in 2009.

Until then, “we will fight it as much as we can,” Al-Wardi says. “A school I don’t mind, but not a condo. I am okay with something for public use but not for somebody else’s pocket.”

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Reach the writer at cpelisek@laweekly.com

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