By Doug Haberman

RIVERSIDE – The city of Riverside’s Redevelopment Agency has settled three eminent domain lawsuits filed against the Garner family for properties the agency wants to see redeveloped.

The cost was $5,894,680 for a total of 2.4 acres in three locations, Development Director Belinda Graham said.

The agency paid almost $3.5 million for 1.7 acres on Merrill Avenue across from the Riverside Plaza, more than $2 million for the old Ab Brown garage site — about six-tenths of an acre — on Lime Street at University Avenue, and $350,000 for a narrow, 4,000-square-foot parking lot next to the old Imperial Hardware building on Main Street near University Avenue.

Public agencies use eminent domain to acquire private property from owners unwilling to sell. They typically employ it to buy land for public uses, such as parks, libraries and street-widening projects, but they can also use eminent domain for redevelopment projects.

When the City Council, acting as the agency board, approved the eminent domain suits against the Garners in 2006, the justification was that their properties were blighted — the Merrill property held boarded-up buildings and the garage was run-down — or not being used to their full potential in the case of the parking lot.

“We’re happy we were able to come to terms with the family,” Assistant City Manager Michael Beck said. “We’re enthusiastic about the parcels playing a more vital role in the city’s economy.”

But Carlsbad resident Sarah Garner, whose family owned the land, said they accepted less money than the land was worth to avoid going to trial.

“We feel like we were taken advantage of, to say the least,” she said.

The whole affair was disappointing because the family had plans for each parcel, Garner said, and the lawsuits put an end to those plans.

While there are tax advantages to having property acquired by eminent domain, Garner said, it will be almost impossible to reinvest the proceeds in parcels that have as much potential as the parcels they were forced to sell.

The Redevelopment Agency demolished the buildings on Merrill and put in a parking lot.

It also demolished the Ab Brown garage and for now will probably put in a parking lot to replace the parking lot that is cater-corner, which in turn will be replaced by the new downtown fire station, Graham said.

On Merrill, the agency acquired all the parcels between the VIP Nightclub and the America’s Tire Co. and solicited proposals for redeveloping the land.

The only responsive bid came from the owners of Riverside Plaza, Graham said.

Her department is evaluating the proposal.

Councilman William “Rusty” Bailey, whose ward includes the plaza and Merrill, said he likes the proposal, which would involve rerouting part of Merrill along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks to allow the mall to expand to the north.

As for the narrow parking lot on Main at University, it would probably become part of any redevelopment of the Imperial Hardware site, Graham said.

The city has not solicited developer proposals for that parcel and has yet to evaluate the condition of the building to see how much it might cost to make it reusable, she said.

Councilman Mike Gardner, whose ward includes downtown, said he doesn’t believe the Imperial Hardware building is as attractive as other old buildings downtown, outside or inside, so he would not be averse to a new three- or four-story building there.

But “I’d want to see what city residents think,” he said.

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