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A Philadelphia Artist Fights An Epic Eminent Domain Battle

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Would someone please help James Dupree already?

For weeks I've been following this story. Hopefully you know it by now. In case you don't, he's the artist who owns a building in West Philly and he's being forced out, under the city's "Eminent Domain" rules, in order to make way for a grocery store. Apparently, the neighborhood really needs a grocery store. So much so that the city is compelled to make him an offer he can't refuse: sell his property at a much-lower-than-market price or watch his building be bulldozed. Nice. Dupree is fighting the city. He's enlisted some major people in the art world to back him up too.

Eminent Domain? It's best defined this way: "The power to take private property for public use by a state, municipality, or private person or corporation authorized to exercise functions of public character, following the payment of just compensation to the owner of that property."

I've never met Dupree. I'm not a tea party activist, or an ultra-right wing conservative or a Ron Swanson Libertarian. I don't even know the first thing about art. But I do know one thing: this is really, really wrong. I could make jokes, but it isn't funny either. It needs to be fixed. Dupree should be allowed to keep his property. More importantly, we should use this opportunity change the way eminent domain works.

But wait...let's get back to the grocery store. This is not a vital road or a public service or strategic military operation. It's making way for an Acme (or some other market like it) for God's sake. Are the people in the neighborhood starving? Is it really a "food desert" as one city official said? Somalia strikes me as a food desert. West Philly doesn't. Is there no other grocery store around? When I grew up in Germantown my parents had to drive five miles to the Acme because the pickings were so slim around us. I'm not saying it's unimportant and an inconvenience for many in the community. I'm sure there are old and sick people that could benefit by having a grocery store nearby too. But is this enough of a reason to kick a guy out of his property? I'm sure Dupree's as charitable as the next guy but even he's got a limit. Why does he have to be chosen out to suffer?

Then there's the price. Which doesn't matter. It's his property. If the price offered isn't high enough, (which according to him it's far from market value), then he's got every right to just say no. And even if the price is high enough he still doesn't have to say yes. That's what ownership is all about. If he wants to suffer the same fate as these homeowners in China then more power to him. And by the way, he may be a respected artist with works hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Art but it's possible that property development may be his true talent: he bought the place for $185K in 2005, the city offered him $640K and he says it's worth $2.2 million. This guy is not just an artist...he's freaking Donald Trump. Rather than kicking out entrepreneurs like him the city ought to be doing everything they can to keep him around.

There is a solution here. It's not about whether seizing Dupree's property is the right or wrong thing to do (it's wrong, by the way). It's more about the process. Eminent Domain shouldn't be decided by the city of Philadelphia or any government. Who made the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority the boss?

What gives them the right to decide whether a guy's property should be bulldozed in order to achieve their objectives? Eminent Domain is a necessary thing. But it needs better and more balanced oversight, and not just in the city of Philadelphia but in cities like us. I suggest an elected or appointed board of government, business and otherwise ordinary civic minded individuals who can fairly rule on whether a government has precedence over the property of its individual citizens. Oh, and choose these people from some other part of the country, not Philly. Let's get some clear-headed thinking from the outside. We'll return the favor elsewhere. Maybe James Dupree doesn't want to make his situation the cause for a national discussion (and I wouldn't hold that against him).

But what better opportunity is there for coming up for a long term fix to this problem?

A version of this blog appeared in Philadelphia Magazine.