A year after Los Angeles seized three acres from a private company to construct a public building, a city councilman wants to sell the land to another private firm for a commercial development.
Both companies are furniture manufacturers. But executives with the company that would buy the land have political connections and have made $17,600 in campaign contributions to key city leaders.
Critics of the proposal say it's wrong for the city to use its power of eminent domain to take property from one business for a public purpose and then sell it to another business.
"It strikes me as an extraordinarily blatant abuse of eminent domain," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.
The city's initial plan was to use the site for a new South Los Angeles animal shelter. The city paid $5.8 million to buy the property with money raised by a bond issue that voters approved to expand animal services.
The switch has delayed construction of the needed shelter by at least a year and could add $5 million to the construction cost. The price tag could hit $17 million, because the new site requires a more expensive design, and the cost for materials and labor has skyrocketed.
Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who is spearheading the plan and represents the area, says the public would benefit more if the land were used for a business.
"It's one of the last inner-city industrial areas, and so we are trying to ensure that it continues to develop," he said. "The original proposal impairs the growth of a major economic development."
The previous owners of the property, which includes three warehouse buildings, said the city has betrayed them.
Their furniture-manufacturing firm had 20 years of success in South Los Angeles, said Scott Vaughan, a partner in Vaughan Benz, which has moved to near Chinatown. "It was thriving."
"If they are not going to do what they claimed they were doing and put an animal shelter there," he said, "it was unnecessary to take our property."
Vaughan Benz fought the city's decision to seize its property in court, and the partners said the time and money spent on that battle hurt their business.
"It was three years of torture," said Vaughan, who added that the legal costs would have been in the "six figures" if the case had gone to trial.
Under the deal proposed by Parks, Cisco Bros., a furniture design and manufacturing firm, would acquire the site in the 5900 block of South Western Avenue to expand the adjacent L.A. Design Center. The animal shelter would be built a block away on city-owned land at 6000 S. St. Andrews Place.
On Jan. 24, a City Council committee will take up a motion submitted by Parks that would start the complicated process to make the switch.
David Benz, a partner with Vaughan, said the city's delay in replacing the cramped, 57-year-old South L.A. animal shelter on 11th Avenue is hurting the community. He said packs of dogs run wild through the area because there are not adequate shelter services and facilities, even though a small annex shelter has been built on West 36th Street. "It's a public health issue," he said.
Ed Boks, the new interim general manager of the Animal Services Department, confirmed that a replacement shelter is desperately needed. "It's our highest-volume center, and it serves a community with the greatest need for service," he said.
Among some city officials, the proposal to sell the seized land has raised some eyebrows.
"I really do feel uncomfortable about it," said James W. Odom, a member of an oversight committee set up by the city to make sure it properly spends the money from its animal shelter bond issue
If the city decides to change the property's use, Odom said, he will fight to make sure the animal shelter bond money is paid back.
"That's my taxpayer money," he said.
Parks said any money from the sale would be used to reimburse the animal bond account to the extent possible.
Carrying out his proposal for the land would require some fancy legal footwork.
The City Council would have to suspend plans to build the shelter at the Western Avenue site. Then, before the parcel could be sold, the council would have to take steps to declare it surplus property.
The new site for the shelter was bought with money from bonds that voters approved for police facilities. The property was used temporarily to house officers from the 77th Street Division police station while that building was replaced.
One source said the city attorney's office has determined that because the site was used as intended as a temporary police facility, it can now legally be used for an animal shelter.
Jonathan Diamond, a spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, declined to provide details of the legal analysis. "The evaluation is still in process," he said.
Francisco Pinedo, president of Cisco Bros., said Delgadillo is sympathetic to the proposal.
The firm and its executives have donated to the campaigns of several politicians whose support is essential to the deal.