By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
In powerful simplicity, the mural painted on the exterior of James Dupree’s art studio tells the story of the battle between the renowned artist and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.
Seemingly creeping out of the wall, a grotesque human hand reaches for a building, the fingers looking more like an octopus’ tentacles than normal human digits. Dupree has painted a warning just below.
“HANDS OFF My Business.”
That concise phrase captures Dupree’s fight over the past year. In December 2012, the authority used eminent domain to condemn the three-lot property that Dupree bought in 2005, all to make way for a state-subsidized grocery store.
Dupree has used art to fight back, painting the mural to protest the seizure of his 8,000-square foot studio in Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood. He’s responded other ways, too — by partnering with the Institute for Justice to raise awareness, taking his objections to court and rallying support through an online petition at Change.org.
Dupree could not be immediately reached for comment this week, but the situation has garnered national attention. The artist has chronicled the case on his website, www.savedupreestudios.org, which describes how Dupree transformed the Haverford Avenue property into an art studio complete with classrooms and residential spaces.
“I invested everything I own into this property,” Dupree said in an Institute for Justice op-ed piece posted on Forbes.com.
David Snyder, a Philadelphia real estate attorney, recently noted the case on his blog, writing “the fact that this taking has received this much attention further demonstrates the volatile and emotional nature of eminent domain cases.”
It also shows, Snyder wrote, that eminent domain is a “politically sensitive area” ever since a pivotal 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling stemming from a property grab in New London, Conn., found that private redevelopment plans were a permissible public use.
In that instance, the city condemned several homes to accommodate a private redevelopment centered on the pharmaceutical company Pfizer — a move that eventually ended in disaster when the drug giant left and the affected properties were used as a temporary dump.
Dana Berliner, litigation director at the Institute for Justice, served as co-counsel for the homeowners in that case and believes Dupree has a good footing in his appeal to Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court.
Eminent domain was intended to be used sparingly and for projects such as roads and public buildings, Berliner said, adding that “it’s virtually always true” that a project that needs to be accomplished can be done without the seizure of private property.
“There are many things wrong with eminent domain for private development,” Berliner said. “Of course, there’s the constitutional problem with it. There’s a moral problem with taking one person’s property to give it to another because that person might produce more profit from it. Then there’s a practical problem, which is that these projects rarely live up to their promises and no one ever checks and there’s no consequences if they fail.”
Like dozens of other states, Pennsylvania reformed its eminent domain laws in response to the New London ruling. The state barred condemnations for private commercial development in 2006, but a loophole in the law didn’t close until Dec. 31, 2012, just days after the authority seized Dupree’s property.
Dupree scored a partial legal victory in November, when Philadelphia County Court of Commons Pleas Judge Ellen Ceisler issued an opinion that found the city did not have the authority to take one of his lots. The judge had previously overruled Dupree’s objections to the seizure.
For now, the officials behind the controversial eminent domain decision aren’t saying much after offering Dupree about $650,000 for his property, which the artist has said appraised for $2.2 million, according to the Philadelphia Daily News.
Paul Chrystie, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, declined to comment extensively on the issue, but noted that Dupree’s property was not the only one affected.
“We’ve basically made it a policy to not comment on individual condemnation cases, and I think it’s best that we stick to that,” Chrystie said.
As Dupree’s mural grows and the number of supporters signing the petition at Change.org ticks past 2,300 supporters, it’s clear he won’t go down easy — especially after he told the Daily News that the city sent him a bill for unpaid taxes from 2013 even after it had seized his deed.
“Can you believe this?” Dupree asked the newspaper. “Again, the city wants it both ways. Well, it won’t happen. I’ll die fighting this.”
Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at [email protected] Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.