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San Diego agency may take downtown block through eminent domain

The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) has been pursuing the possibility of taking a downtown city block through eminent domain in order to replace its current, rented, headquarters.

Although building a new tower could cost over $112 million, the idea offers two advantages. First, compared with renting space, owning its headquarters could save SANDAG about $26 million over 40 years. Second, the agency could gain a new revenue stream by renting space to tenants.

When the idea was floated in November, however, the owner of the lot SANDAG was considering didn't want to sell. Also, some board members were leery of using eminent domain to obtain a parcel meant for a mix of public and private uses. The board voted down the proposal.

The agency returned this month with a new idea. SANDAG has been under heavy pressure to solve another problem: the lack of bus parking in downtown. Currently, Metropolitan Transit System drivers are forced to park their buses on the street whenever they take breaks. Moreover, there aren't enough public toilets for them to use, so temporary toilets have been deployed on sidewalks. SANDAG has been considering buying a lot for bus parking.

This led to the idea that the agency could purchase a single lot for both projects. A ground or underground area would be dedicated to bus parking and driver facilities, topped by a tower housing SANDAG's headquarters and tenants.

The lot in question is between A and B streets and Union and State streets. Multiple entities own parts of the block, including the San Diego County Bar Association, which does not plan to sell voluntarily.

According to the Voice of San Diego, the bar association bought the land in the 70s for the same reason SANDAG wants it now -- as a location for its permanent headquarters. The bar association argues that it has a superior right to occupy and develop the property.

In November, SANDAG proposed offering $35.7 million to buy the parcel, including $12 million to the bar association. Those proposals were based on appraisals. The bar association made a counterproposal that was not based on an appraisal.

The SANDAG board will hold another hearing this week, but reporters don't expect the possibility of eminent domain to be reopened. Instead, the group will consider other options.

The use of eminent domain for purposes that are not strictly for the public good is controversial. Many government agencies hesitate to approve its use for private or public-private projects.

When it is used, however, property owners should know that they have a right to full, fair compensation when their properties are taken by eminent domain, and that getting it may require negotiation.

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