East Side leaders agree they want to revitalize their neighborhood. 'How' is the issue
If Governor Rick Perry is looking for a case to demonstrate the importance of the eminent domain bill he signed on September 1, Tommy Moore Jr. is happy to oblige. In mid-August, the East Side businessman received a letter from the San Antonio Development Agency informing him that the City plans to purchase his property for $11,500 on behalf of the St. Paul Area Development Corporation. The 4-year-old, non-profit community organization wants to build an independent senior living center just off East Commerce, adjacent to St. Paul's United Methodist Church and the Holiday Inn Express. The letter gave Moore until September 15 to accept SADA's offer, or, it read, SADA "may exercise its legal authority to acquire your property through the power of eminent domain."
|Businessman Tommy Moore Jr. stands on his East Side lot the San Antonio Development Agency wants to acquire for the St. Paul Area Development Corporation, which would use the property as part of an independent-living community for seniors. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)|
Incensed that SADA offered little more than half the current Bexar County tax appraisal on the land, Moore informed the agency that his "rights of property ownership as protected by ... the State of Texas," meant he didn't have to sell.
But Senate Bill 7, eked out during the 79th Legislature's second special session and inspired by furor over the recent Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, doesn't become effective until November 18. While the new state law will limit the City's ability to take private land for the economic benefit of another private entity, it still leaves room for "municipal urban renewal activities to eliminate an existing affirmative harm on society from slum or blighted areas." Moore's property sits squarely within a portion of the near East Side that has suffered from decades of neglect and poverty and is now included in a City-approved urban-renewal zone.
The cracked asphalt on Moore's small lot at 125 N. Mesquite is quickly losing out to the grass. Rusted fixtures that Moore says once anchored a trailer protrude here and there. But across the street sits a low, cream-colored, light-office building that Moore rents to small businesses and the Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department. Moore says he needs the lot to meet the City's mandatory parking space-to-square foot ratio for his office building and that he is close to securing funding to upgrade the offices' interior and to re-pave the lot. "To me, it's ludicrous that I would take $11,000 when I have a $400,000 project going on," says Moore.
Moore, who owns Urban Communi-cations Inc., purchased his properties in the mid-'90s, when "everything was run down." He says he is helping to revitalize the neighborhood, one venture at a time. "What's ironic about it, I'm the only African American over here doing development." To Moore, the Mesquite lot is part of a growing economic-revitalization enterprise that includes five additional East Side properties.
The Development Corporation, on the other hand, would like to see 125 N. Mesquite become a ... parking lot. Sitting in the small house across from St. Paul's Church that serves as the corporation's offices, co-founder and Executive Director Gloria Ray flips through the architects' rendering of its proposed independent living center, which would provide apartments for more than 40 seniors and meeting areas that would be available to other community organizations for activities. Where Moore's property lies, Ray's map shows a manicured lot for staff parking.
The corporation acquired five lots with a CDBG grant it received in 2004 and, Ray says, it has a sixth under contract. Moore's lot, along with four others, is slated to be purchased with a second round of CDBG funds, which become available in October, but Ray claims the project can proceed without it.
Ray says the senior center was inspired by longtime East Side activist Helen Cloud Austin, who had to move to a retirement home on the Northwest Side of town when she and her husband could no longer live independently because of health issues. Ray and the corporation membership believe they have found a way to keep seniors in their neighborhood and improve the area at the same time. St. Paul's has become a regional church, Ray observes. Congregants drive to services from throughout the city, "then we get in our cars and go home. Isn't that a sin?" The Development Corporation is a private charity with a 501(c)3 designation, but Ray speaks of its mission in spiritual terms. Its motto is "Sharing the gifts of God through the People of God."
Reverend Terrence Hayes, pastor of St. Paul's, supports the corporation's plan as the cornerstone of an effort to increase homeownership in the neighborhood. "`St. Paul's` used to be the centerpiece of the African-American community," says Hayes. "For the sake of progress and the sake of this 140-year-old church, our growth depends on community density and our ability to be able to pull from people who live within walking range."
Not all of God's people at St. Paul's support the corporation's plans, however. Although a majority of the church membership voted to support the development in August 2003, in June 2004, members of the church's administrative council sent a public notice to the Express-News disassociating itself from the corporation. Ray and Moore are both church members, and each claims to have the real support of the congregation. The two sides are now waiting to see if a United Methodist Church district council will support the church vote, which would allow the church to lease or sell lots adjacent to Moore's property to the corporation.
Although Moore, Ray, and Reverend Hayes agree that the SADA letter was "too harsh," as Hayes put it, any comity ends there. Moore says the first time he learned of the corporation's plans to use his lot was when he received the letter from SADA. Baloney, says Ray, the plans have been public for more than two years. "He has not yet talked to us," although, she says, the corporation has offered to sit down with him. "The price is negotiable."
Ernest Haffner, a SADA special project manager, echoes Ray. "What we would expect from `Moore` is, if the price is not acceptable for him, he would make a counter-offer," he says. "Unfortunately the tone of that letter, the way it sounds, it could be misconstrued." Haffner insists that SADA only uses eminent domain in extreme cases. "If we realize that his property is not critical to what St. Paul's is try-ing to do, nothing stops us from walking away. But if it's critical, we'll see if we can reach a settlement that's acceptable to both parties." •
By Elaine Wolff