Virgil Parker sat alone in the back room of his small Norwalk Boulevard repair shop last week, surrounded by electronic parts, gutted television sets and 17 years of memories.
The city has "been trying to condemn this place ever since the (adult) bookstores went in," Parker said, as he stuffed a cigarette butt into the overflowing ashtray.
"I'd move out if they offered me a fair price, but I know they won't give me one. What's fair value for a business that's been running for 17 years?"
Parker, who owns a TV repair shop next to Mr. K's Adult Bookstore, is one of more than two dozen Norwalk Boulevard business owners who could face condemnation of their property if the Community Redevelopment Agency approves a proposal introduced at its meeting last week.
Many of the business owners, including former City Councilman Richard Vineyard, complain that they should have the right to operate in the small, square-mile community without threat of being bought out.
"We worked too hard to just give up (the location)," said Patti Ross, who opened Colleen's Flower Shop with her mother-in-law at Norwalk Boulevard and 221st Street last year. "We've finally built up a clientele."
City Administrator Darwin G. Pichetto--who serves as redevelopment director--has asked the City Council to grant the agency land-taking power over five proposed project areas on Norwalk Boulevard as a way to "give a thrust to our redevelopment program." City Council members also sit as the redevelopment board.
Unlike many redevelopment agencies in the state, Hawaiian Garden's 15-year-old Community Redevelopment Agency lacks the authority to exercise the power of eminent domain unless its board gives specific approval.
Without condemnation power, Pichetto said, the agency has been limited in its ability to bring large-scale retail and office development to the city.
"It's very difficult, if not impossible, to carry out the redevelopment process" without using eminent domain as a tool to assemble large tracts for major development, Pichetto said.
Under state redevelopment law, agencies buy blighted property at market value, then offer the land to private developers at a discount. The use of eminent domain provisions is normally used only if the city fails to reach a settlement with the property owner.
The Redevelopment Agency board approved the Norwalk Boulevard right-of-condemnation proposal in concept last week. The board is expected to hold a public hearing at its Nov. 15 meeting, and take a final vote at a later date, officials said. The agency has yet to use eminent domain to acquire property since it was formed in 1973.
If the proposal is approved, the agency would have eminent domain power over all commercial property and two residential parcels along Norwalk, from 226th Street to Carson Street. It would also have authority to condemn a piece of property at Carson Street and Juan Avenue, and several commercial sites on the both sides of Norwalk between 214th and 215th streets, Pichetto said.
'Need to Move'
"We need to move on this," Mayor Kathleen M. Navejas said in an interview before the board met Tuesday night. "We all see the interest" in the city by developers.
The section of Norwalk Boulevard is dotted with vacant lots and empty buildings. One block-long vacant lot, owned by the city, was slated for a combination senior center and library. However, that project was abandoned last summer after city and county library officials could not agree on who would pay for the library service.
Now, according to officials, a Home Club may open on the site, one block south of Carson. City officials say they hope the proposed Home Club project would produce interest for further redevelopment along Norwalk Boulevard leading to Long Beach.
But owners of businesses on that strip accuse the city of unfairly targeting them. They say the city has been threatening to take their property for the past several years, ever since two adult bookstores opened up in the same retail complex at Norwalk Boulevard and 226th Street.
"They've talked about this for a long time," said Victor Hsieh, whose family manages a liquor store next to Le Sex Shoppe.
Owners of the two bookstores did not return calls for comment.
Former Councilman Vineyard, who owns a Norwalk Boulevard muffler shop south of Carson Street, charged that his business "may be one of the main targets," an accusation that Pichetto and Navejas deny. Navejas has been a longtime foe of Vineyard, who lost his council seat in April after a bitter campaign.
Opposes Eminent Domain
Vineyard said he opposes eminent domain because it allows public agencies to "buy private land from private individuals and give it to private developers to make a profit."
"I find that very offensive," Vineyard said.
Pichetto confirmed that the agency has targeted those businesses south of Carson Street. In a staff report, Pichetto wrote that the "area east of Norwalk from 226th Street to Carson be given priority" should the use of eminent domain become necessary.
Pichetto declined to elaborate, but said in an interview that the agency "is putting a thrust on the lower part of Norwalk Boulevard."
Pichetto said that the agency's use of eminent domain would also benefit local business owners by allowing them to apply for a tax advantage under the "Involuntary Conversion Section" of the Internal Revenue Code.
Under the section, land owners can defer taxes on profits made through the eminent domain process, allowing them to reinvest the money in a new business, Pichetto said.
"It's a service to property owners and it allows us to integrate parcels together," Pichetto said, adding that "several property owners" had asked him to push for the power of eminent domain so they could claim the tax advantage. He declined to identify the property owners, however.