Avoid Eminent Domain at  Regional Connector Site

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - No one likes eminent domain proceedings. Getting into a situation where an arm of government moves to seize property is a lose-lose situation. Often civic leaders wind up looking like bullies. Frequently the person who has a holding snatched away is dissatisfied over the amount of money received.

The potential of an ugly eminent domain outcome is why everyone involved with a key Little Tokyo parcel needs to do his or her best to keep a level head and treat each other with the utmost respect. If things go wrong, there is the potential for a situation that is currently serious to explode into one that is painful, expensive, time-consuming and highly litigious.

Los Angeles Downtown News this month reported on a parcel on the southeast corner of First Street and Central Avenue that is owned by Robert Davies Volk. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority needs to acquire the property so that it can build the $1.37 billion Regional Connector. The project is an extremely important mass transit link that would speed up and facilitate light rail travel across the region. Metro and other officials have spent a lot of time determining the route and potential stations, and the site in question is vital to making everything work.

The problem is, Volk wants more money than Metro is offering. With negotiations at an impasse, the Metro Board of Directors in late June voted in favor of pursuing eminent domain proceedings. The first formal step in the process would be for Metro to file a civil complaint. That could happen soon. 

Volk said his family has owned the property since the 1880s. Currently it is known to most Downtowners as a food destination. Weiland’s Brewery was there for 14 years, though it closed June 30, as the owner knew he had to vacate soon and has another opportunity. The site also holds the popular eateries Señor Fish and the Spice Table.

The amount of money offered by Metro has not been disclosed, though an agency official noted that it is in the millions. Volk said Metro’s offer doesn’t reflect the land’s highest and best use valuation. In addition to the restaurants, part of the land is a parking lot.

Therein lies the conflict. Volk believes the valuation should be higher, that it should reflect the potential of the land if, say, it housed apartments. The spark for the belief comes from the many residential complexes that have risen in the area over the past decade. One large apartment complex is immediately to the east.

One interesting aspect is that everyone, Volk included, recognizes the importance of the land for the Metro project. Volk freely acknowledges that using his property makes logistical sense. What he doesn’t like is the money offered.

Already there are indications that reaching a happy medium could be difficult. A Metro official said Volk did not respond when the agency offered a purchase price. Nor, she said, has he delivered a counter-offer.

Right now the situation appears to be at an impasse. If that is the case, then it is worth doing whatever is necessary to resolve that impasse and to begin a dialogue before things move too far in the eminent domain process. Perhaps there is a trusted business leader or elected official who can play peacemaker, such as the parcel’s own representative, 14th District Councilman José Huizar. It is worth doing whatever is necessary to get everyone to the table, and once there, all sides need to be flexible with their demands and expectations.

It is possible that eminent domain proceedings could play out. In that situation, the court would be charged with determining a fair market value for the site, and Volk and Metro would be stuck with the ruling. All sorts of things would have to be considered, including the price for the highest and best use of the land, but also any potential constraints preventing that best use from occurring.

The other problem with the conflict is that things will get expensive and bog down. In an eminent domain case there will be high legal fees. The court proceedings as well could be time consuming, and any delays tied to haggling over the price might ultimately be less than the cost of slowing down the entire project.

No one wants eminent domain here. That’s why the parties need to get to the negotiating table. Even if there is not a solution that makes everyone happy, it is worth finding one that everyone can accept. It’s better to have the players do it than the courts.

©Los Angeles Downtown News.