By Doug Haberman

RIVERSIDE – The city will continue negotiating for 30 days to buy three parcels just north of the Fox Theatre for a theater parking garage but the City Council on Tuesday gave staff the authority to draw up an eminent domain lawsuit to file if the negotiations go nowhere.

The city is converting the theater into the 1,600-seat Fox Performing Arts Center, which is set to open in fall 2009. It wants to build a garage with at least 400 parking spaces on the half-block next to the Fox to serve center patrons.

V. Prabhu Dhalla, who owns or co-owns three targeted parcels, has been in unsuccessful negotiations with the city. After the vote, he said he could reach a deal “if they’re reasonable.”

The city estimates it would cost $4.8 million to buy the three parcels and prepare them for construction of the garage.

The matter will come back to the council in 30 days for an update on the negotiations. The council will decide whether staff should continue negotiating or file the eminent domain case.

The motion made by Councilman Mike Gardner and approved by the council called for trying to reach a deal with Dhalla that would allow him to continue owning the historic storefronts on Market Street between the Fox and Sixth Street.

Three antiques stores occupy the storefronts, but the city is hoping for businesses more compatible with a performing arts center, such as restaurants or coffeehouses.

Gardner’s motion also called for saving a Spanish Revival-style building on Fairmount Boulevard now occupied by an antiques store and a botanica, which sells religious items and alternative medicines.

Before the council meeting, Gardner said that last building could be used as storage for the Fox.

In September, the city bought 20,000 square feet of space for the proposed garage at the corner of Sixth Street and Fairmount Boulevard. The price was $2 million.

The structures on that land house the Riverside City Mission and an automotive repair business, both of which would have to be relocated.

Joanne Pease-Simpson and James Youden addressed the council on behalf of the Old Riverside Foundation, a preservation group. They called on the city to work with the preservation community to save the historic buildings.

Patrick Brien, executive director of the Riverside Arts Council, and Wayne Hinton, executive director of the Riverside County Philharmonic, said the proposed parking garage would be a key to the Fox Performing Arts Center’s success.

Public agencies use eminent domain to acquire private property from owners unwilling to sell, or unwilling to sell at the price an agency offers. The agency condemning the property must pay fair market value. Eminent domain is typically employed to buy property for public uses, such as parks, libraries and street-widening projects.

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