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Eminent domain possible

| Saturday, April 12, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

The Murphy administration wants to use -- or at least threaten to use -- eminent domain to acquire four buildings that it says it needs for a new African-American Cultural Center, Downtown, Councilman Sala Udin wrote in a letter to City Council members.

The city's Urban Redevelopment Authority owns four of the eight buildings at the targeted site -- a triangular block at the intersection of Liberty Avenue and William Penn Place. The city says it still needs four more buildings to make room for the proposed $25 million museum.

"The mayor supports our need to use (or threaten) eminent domain, but he needs to know that if he sends the legislation to council, he will not be rebuffed," Udin wrote in the March 21 letter.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reviewed a copy of the letter.

Reached by phone Friday, Udin backed off and said: "We have not had any commitment from the mayor's office." He declined to say whether any other council members agreed to support eminent domain.

"I'm not sure what the mayor's willing to do," Udin said. "I'm only trying to get a sense of council and whether council is willing to support condemnation legislation, if necessary."

Eminent domain is the legal term for government taking land it wants or needs and allowing a judge to set the price. It became a hot-button issue in the city two years ago, when Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy proposed using eminent domain to acquire buildings in the Fifth and Forbes corridor for redevelopment. That proposal failed, and Murphy has said the city will avoid using eminent domain in its new redevelopment plan for that area.

Murphy spokesman Craig Kwiecinski said the mayor supports the African-American Cultural Center project but has directed the URA to buy property for it amicably.

URA Director Mulugetta Birru wrote in response to e-mailed questions yesterday that "the mayor has told me, in all the projects that I am working on, to acquire properties amicably. I am at this point attempting to acquire amicably throughout the city."

The proposed African-American Cultural Center would include a 300-seat theater; a music cafe; African bazaar-themed retail shops; and a variety of exhibits showcasing cultural and social contributions of blacks in the Pittsburgh area and throughout the country. It is scheduled to open in 2005.

Calling some of the block's remaining buildings "seedy," Udin wrote that the city might have to threaten to take the buildings to persuade property owners to reduce their price demands. Two property owners want "outrageous" prices for their buildings, Udin wrote, and another building is tied up in a divorce.

He asked council members to agree in writing to vote in favor of eminent domain if the issue would come before the council.

"We do not intend to have to actually utilize eminent-domain taking of property, but having the arrow in our quiver will cause the property owners to sell at a reasonable price," he said.

The owners of three buildings vowed to fight the city's attempts to take their properties by eminent domain.

William Zotis, the owner of the fourth, at 972 Liberty Ave., could not be reached for comment.

"We would be very opposed to such an action, and we would fight them using all legal remedies available," said Bruce Bronster, a New York City-based limited partner in Liberty Partners, which owns two buildings at 960 and 962 Liberty Ave.

Bronster said the city has not contacted him about buying the properties.

Liberty Partners bought the buildings in 1987 because they are in "just a great location at the end of the historic district," Bronster said. He declined to say why the owners had not filled the properties, which appear to be vacant.

Another building, at 966 Liberty Ave., is owned by Ralph and Sally Maiette, according to Allegheny County assessment records, and it houses Chez Kimberly, a restaurant that advertises exotic dancers. A woman reached by phone there who identified herself as Sally said the city had offered to buy the building.

"I'll stay here as long as I can," the woman said before declining further comment.

The URA has owned the building at 964 Liberty Ave. since 1996. Theo Kourkoutis, who operates a tailoring shop in the building, said he first was told to close by the end of April but has been given an extension through July.

The authority paid $1 million in January to buy three other buildings -- at 968, 970 and 974 Liberty Ave. -- from Eddy Holdings Co. They had housed Mary Ryan's Tavern and the Palace Theater, which were razed in August, and the Sportshaven, which is closed.

A nonprofit organization, the African-American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh Inc., would own and operate the cultural center.

Financing for the center so far includes $200,000 a year for three years from the sales tax-levying Allegheny County Regional Asset District; a $269,000 grant from the URA; and a $250,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments.

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