Billboards, Media Conference Spotlight Pittsburgh’s Eminent Domain Controversy

John Kramer
John Kramer · June 20, 2000

Washington, D.C.-They are big, bold, and can be seen across Pittsburgh. Ten billboard advertisements (each measuring 12 feet high by 25 feet wide) went up today, calling the public’s attention to the City of Pittsburgh’s potential abuse of eminent domain-the power of government to take someone’s private property.

To unveil the campaign, Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dana Berliner and the Allegheny Institute Taxpayer Coalition’s Senior Coordinator Doug Reed will host a news conference along with Bonnie Klein, the owner of Klein Camera Repair, a family-owned and operated business that faces forced transfer through the City’s use of eminent domain. The media conference will take place at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, June 20, at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Ross, beneath one of the billboards that is located only blocks from Mayor Murphy’s office. The billboard reads, “Murphy’s Law: Take from Pittsburgh families. Give to a Chicago developer.”

Six different messages appear in the ads. [Download Copy of BILLBOARDS now (in PDF format)] Four of them focus on Mayor Tom Murphy, who refuses to assure Pittsburgh property owners that their land won’t be taken by the City through eminent domain only to be handed over to another private party: the Chicago-based developer Urban Retail Properties. (Urban Retail Properties has convinced Mayor Murphy to demolish more than 60 buildings in the Fifth and Forbes neighborhood so it may build an urban shopping mall in their place. More than 120 small locally owned businesses may be destroyed so Urban Retail Properties can bring in national chain stores, such as Tiffany’s, The Gap, and an AMC cinema multiplex.) Two billboards spotlight possible new tenants of seized land: retired NFL quarterback Dan Marino and Tiffany’s.

“Property rights are the foundation of all our other rights,” said Chip Mellor, the Institute for Justice’s president. “If we are secure in our homes and places of business, we can assemble; we can speak freely; we can earn an honest living. But when our property rights are violated, each of those precious fruits of liberty disappears.”

Mellor said, “Mayor Murphy has said that eminent domain will only be used as a last resort. What people need to understand is that eminent domain is always used as a last resort. It’s no different from a robber saying, ‘You wouldn’t give me your wallet, so I’m forcing you to hand it over only as a last resort.'”

Dana Berliner, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice said, “The Founding Fathers limited condemnations to public use in order to avoid just this kind of government misconduct. And when they said ‘public use’ you can be sure Tiffany’s and the Gap are not what they had in mind. Too many officials like Mayor Murphy have forgotten that the Constitution was designed to prevent government from infringing upon the rights of its citizens. These billboards are a civic wakeup call.”

“Pittsburgh taxpayers will find the City’s abuse of eminent domain at Fifth and Forbes costly in two ways,” said Mellor. “First, they’ll have to dish out nearly half a billion dollars in corporate welfare for Urban Retail Properties to end up with these properties. Second, if the City moves to take these properties against the owners’ wishes, it can expect a long and expensive legal fight by these small businesses to ensure their property rights are vindicated.” The Institute for Justice has offered to defend for free property owners whose businesses may be seized.

“The government shouldn’t act as a coercive real estate broker forcing people off of their land just to hand it over to a wealthy individual or corporation,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice who grew up in the Pittsburgh area. “Dan Marino, whose NFL contracts tallied in the tens of millions of dollars, Tiffany’s and Urban Retail Properties can each afford to purchase property and negotiate privately with land owners if they want to locate a business in Pittsburgh.”

Through phone calls and e-mails, the Institute for Justice contacted Dan Marino’s agent to ensure he knew about the controversy and to give him an opportunity to state that he would not use land taken through eminent domain to build his sports bar.

Bullock said, “We hope the billboards show Marino how much these family-owned businesses mean to Pittsburgh and that he will pledge not to use property acquired through eminent domain.”

Billboard viewers are encouraged to call (412) 321-8000, a phone line manned by the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Institute Taxpayer Coalition. Callers will then be transferred into their City Council member’s office so they may voice their opposition to the use of eminent domain against the Fifth and Forbes businesses. City Council is expected to vote on the condemnations later this summer or early fall.

“It’s vital that citizens call their council members,” said Mellor. “For all any Pittsburgh property owner knows, their home or business could be next on the Mayor’s wish list. The time to act is now.”

The Institute for Justice is the only organization that has been closely following eminent domain nationwide. “Mayor Murphy’s plan epitomizes the abuse of eminent domain laws not only in Pittsburgh but throughout the nation,” Berliner said.

The Institute for Justice paid for the billboards out of its operating expenses, not through any special donation. The total cost of the advertisements, including printing, was approximately $15,000.

The ten advertisements are expected to remain up for at least one month.

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(Located: Bigelow Road west of Finland; and Murray Ave. north of Burchfield)

(Located: Forbes Ave. east of Chatham Square; and West Liberty Ave. north of Brookside)

(Located: Penn Ave. west of 31st Street; and Blvd. of the Allies east of the Parkway Ramp)

(Located: East Ohio St. north of the 31st Street Bridge)

(Located: Brighton Road north of Brightridge)

(Located: 2nd Ave. east of Ross Street; and Liberty Ave. west of William Penn)



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