A contentious showdown over whether an unelected, government-appointed board should have power of condemnation was temporarily averted when the City Council this week tabled a scheduled vote on how they would proceed with the Confluence Park project and the surrounding neighborhood southwest of downtown.
Opposition has been snowballing in recent weeks over the power of the Urban Renewal Authority board -- an unelected board appointed by the mayor that is charged with recommending ways to improve urban neighborhoods.
The board is recommending that the city be able to condemn properties and longstanding community businesses to make room for the city's Southwest Downtown Urban Renewal plan. The area, bordered on the east by I-25, on the west by Cascade Avenue, on the north by Cimarron Avenue and on the south by Colorado Avenue, includes the proposed Confluence Park, for which voters approved $11 million two years ago. Approximately 370 property owners, who own 100 acres, are currently affected.
On Tuesday, the City Council was divided over whether to proceed with a formal vote or postpone the discussion until the newly-elected City Council members are sworn in and can participate in the discussion. Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace indicated she wanted to move forward with a vote, but the point was made moot when city attorney Pat Kelly noted that the Urban Renewal Authority's attorneys failed to issue a mandatory 30-day notice to potentially affected property owners that such a discussion and potential vote was imminent.
The discussion will have to wait until next month.
The issue of condemnation powers, however, remains a sore spot with potentially affected businesses, a number of neighborhood groups and some City Council members.
"Condemnation is not fun"
Since voters approved the Confluence Park project, the city has spent a portion of that money coming up with a plan for the area, which could include, along with a massive park, a convention center and a baseball stadium. The city pulled out all the stops in its planning and envisioned everything from man-made climbing walls, water fountains, sculptures, gardens and a merry-go-round. City leaders envisioned loft-like housing and other residential and commercial ventures surrounding the park.
Urban Renewal Board vice chairman Brian D. James said the Urban Renewal Board has worked on the concept for the southwest plan for more than a year, and believes they have negotiated fairly with the current property owners.
After much debate, James said, the board decided to keep the right to eminent domain -- the legal term for condemnation -- in the plan, though the power to seize property is not innate.
"Condemnation is not fun," James said. "I don't like it, I don't want to use it freely and ultimately it's a last resort. But it does give you a little bit of extra authority to help the developer to know we intend to get this project done."
The voter-approved $11 million will fall far short of the grand designs outlined in the city's plans, and James noted that additional funding would be market-driven. It would, in effect, be up to developers to actually propose and build their own projects in the area.
However, the city has no design review ability to determine what any of the projects would actually look like, and cannot require them to adhere to any specific scheme (other than general guidelines as set by the 1992 Downtown Action Plan).
But James denied charges from critics that the city would be, in effect, forcing longtime businesses to relocate so the city could sell that land to developers to build undetermined projects.
"It's the new City Council that has to approve or disapprove of this," he said. "If they disagree with it then we have to respect and abide by that. They are the ultimate authority."
The sticking point
Councilman Ted Eastburn calls the plan "enlightened, innovative and exciting."
"However, I absolutely oppose granting powers of condemnation to an unelected body like the Urban Renewal Authority," he said. "As it stands now, the urban renewal board can condemn property without Council oversight, and that's something I can't accept, no matter how good the plan is otherwise. It's unacceptable to force a company to sell for the benefit of another business entity."
Councilman Richard Skorman agrees.
"The sticking point with me is this power of condemnation," he said. "Most of us feel that it's wrong. I can't say the urban renewal plan is at risk, but there are parts of it that make me uncomfortable.
"I want to talk to the property owners to assess their feelings in this. We're being told they're all right with it, but I'm hearing other stories, too."
One affected property owner, Doug Berwick said that he believes that the urban renewal project could benefit the city and improve the livability of the downtown area.
"I don't want to stand in the way of progress," Berwick said. "On the other hand, I don't want to get screwed in that process."
Electric company or bar
Berwick is the co-owner of Berwick Electric, which has been at 129 West Costilla Street since the mid-1940s. Berwick said he had no plans to move and will stay put if allowed to do so. "This site works very well for us," he said.
"One of our biggest problems in all this is that we don't know if we're going to have to leave, and it's not in our power to decide. We're willing to work with the city for the good of the community. It's too bad we had to hire a lawyer to protect ourselves."
Berwick has another problem with condemnation powers.
"Philosophically, it's hard for me to accept that the city can tell me there's a better use for my land than my business -- even though they have no idea yet what that use will be. A baseball stadium? A convention center? An entertainment complex? A mall? A bar? Why is that business more deserving than mine? Why is that a higher use of the land than my use?"
Like Berwick, Tom Trapp of Olson Plumbing and Heating, at 121 West Chucharras Street, said he believes that the board has worked hard. However, he resented having to hire a lawyer to protect himself from being destroyed by the redevelopment plan.
"We've been in business since 1917, and we've been at this location for 10 years," said Trapp. "Where I am is perfect. I employ 150 people, and I'd like to stay put."