Taking Public Interest Law to New Heights

September 1, 2000

Taking Public Interest Law to New Heights

IJ Posts Billboards Across Pittsburgh In Eminent Domain Fight

By Scott Bullock

The day of reckoning for property rights in Pittsburgh looms ominously. Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy appears poised to introduce to the City Council his plan to raze and revamp about one-fifth of downtown Pittsburgh to his own liking. As you will recall, Mayor Murphy wants to demolish more than 60 privately owned buildings and destroy over 120 small, locally owned businesses so the City can give the land to Urban Retail Properties, a Chicago-based developer to bring in national chain stores, such as Tiffany’s and The Gap, as well as an AMC cinema multiplex. At its core, the plan embodies the worst excesses of social engineering and failed urban planning designs. By taking property from private owners to hand over to a private developer, it also blatantly violates the Takings Clause of the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions.

The Pittsburgh plan has been in the works for over two years. Recently, the Mayor escalated his efforts to line up the necessary votes in City Council by promising goodies ranging from subsidized housing to guaranteed union construction jobs. As featured in our previous newsletter, the Institute for Justice has pledged to defend property owners who want to hold onto their businesses and fight eminent domain abuse. Meanwhile, we are working hard to frame the public debate before any actual court battle. Toward that end, in June, the Institute for Justice placed ten billboards, expertly choreographed by IJ Vice President for Communications John Kramer, on main thoroughfares around Pittsburgh focusing public attention on the Mayor’s potential abuse of eminent domain.

Six different messages appeared in the ads. Four of them focused on Mayor Murphy, who throughout this controversy has arrogantly refused to assure Pittsburgh property owners that their land will not be taken against their will through eminent domain. Perhaps our favorite billboard (put up only a few blocks from the Mayor’s office where he was sure to see it) reads: “Murphy’s Law: Take from Pittsburgh families. Give to a Chicago developer.” Two other billboards spotlighted possible new tenants of seized land: Tiffany’s and retired NFL quarterback Dan Marino’s restaurant. The latter billboard read: “Dan Marino: You were a Dolphin. Don’t be a stealer. Take a pass on Fifth and Forbes” (the area threatened by the Mayor’s plan).

We unveiled the billboards at a news conference held right below the billboard nearest the Mayor’s office; IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner spoke along with one of the property owners. Also appearing at the news conference was our partner in the billboard campaign, the Allegheny Institute Taxpayer Coalition. Pittsburghers were urged to call a phone number on the billboard. Callers were then transferred to their City Council member’s office to voice their opposition to the Mayor’s plan. The billboards remained up for an entire month.

This, of course, is only the beginning. We will get the word out about eminent domain abuse until the Mayor gets the message. Whether that message ultimately must be delivered in court will be up to Mayor Murphy.

Scott Bullock is a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice.

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