Metro To Condemn Little Tokyo Site

Metro needs to acquire the property holding the restaurants The Spice Table, Señor Fish and Weiland’s Brewery (the latter closed June 30) for the $1.37 billion Regional Connector. Land owner Robert Davies Volk said the price being offered is too low.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is moving forward with eminent domain proceedings in the effort to acquire a Little Tokyo property where the agency plans to build a station for the Regional Connector.

The agency has long planned to acquire the parcel bounded by Alameda and First streets and Central Avenue, but it has not been able to reach an agreement with property owner Robert Davies Volk. Volk’s family has owned the plot since the late 1880s, he said.

Metro has not disclosed the price it offered for the land, which includes three commercial buildings. They are home to the to-be-displaced restaurants Spice Table and Señor Fish, and Weiland’s Brewery, which closed June 30. Metro’s offer was based on a comprehensive appraisal, said Velma Marshall, Metro deputy executive director of real estate.

According to Marshall, Volk did not respond to Metro’s written offer or in any other way submit a counter-offer. With negotiations at a standstill, the Metro board of directors voted on June 27 to condemn the site through the process of eminent domain.

The agency sees the property as necessary for the construction of the $1.37 billion Regional Connector, an underground light-rail link that will speed up mass transit by reducing transfers. The project will create three new stations in Downtown, one of them on the Little Tokyo site where Volk’s buildings stand.

It is not uncommon for Metro or other public agencies to acquire private property for major public infrastructure projects, but eminent domain is almost always controversial and a last resort.

Volk, who declined to disclose the price that Metro offered for the land other than that it’s “in the millions,” said the offer was much too low.

The agency’s appraisal, Volk said, reflects the value of the property as it is currently used — three commercial buildings and a parking lot. Instead, Volk believes the agency should consider the land’s potential, such as what it would be worth to a developer intent on building an apartment complex with hundreds of residential units.

“I don’t think they’ve captured true highest and best use of the property,” Volk said.

Price Battle

Property owners have legal options to challenge eminent domain. To circumvent condemnation, property owners must prove in court that their existing use of the land provides more public benefit than the alternative proposed by the government.

Challenging eminent domain proceedings, however, is very difficult, and courts tend to side with government agencies and their claim that they need the land for a greater public benefit, said attorney Ben Reznik, who chairs the land-use department at Jeffer Mangels Butler and Mitchell.

In this case, however, the battle is squarely about price. Volk is not challenging Metro’s assertion that his land is needed for the project. In fact, he thinks that it represents the ideal station location.

“If they are going to put a station in Little Tokyo, I think my property probably is the best location for them,” Volk said.

Metro plans to file a civil complaint within the next few weeks to initiate the eminent domain proceedings. The court will be charged with determining what constitutes the fair market value to which Volk is entitled under state law. 

Reznik said Volk is indeed entitled to a valuation that considers the highest and best use of the land, but the agency may believe its appraisal already reflects that value. The court will take into consideration not only what could get built on the property, but constraints that would have restricted Volk’s ability to command that price on the open market. That would include any long-term commercial leases tied to the site.

Metro also needs to acquire two more parcels along the Connector route: a parking lot at Second and Broadway where the agency is planning another station; and part of a plot near Second and Hope streets, the site of the third station. The agency is still in the appraisal process for those two sites, said agency spokesman Dave Sotero.

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at ryan@downtownnews.com.