The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Philadelphia abandons misguided effort to condemn successful artist's studio


In a recent Forbes column, Nick Sibilla of the Institute for Justice reports that the City of Philadelphia has given up its efforts to condemn a successful artist's studio in order to build a supermarket and parking lot on the site:

James Dupree, a world-renowned artist, has battled the City of Philadelphia for nearly two years to save his studio from a government land grab. Using the power of eminent domain, the city wanted to bulldoze Dupree's studio and pave the way for a grocery store and a parking lot. His fight sparked nationwide outrage and galvanized thousands of supporters.

And he just beat City Hall.

In a statement released earlier this month, Brian Abernathy, executive director for the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA), announced that the "PRA will end condemnation proceedings enabling Mr. Dupree to keep his studio."

I previously wrote about this taking here. The City's decision to give it up is a positive development, and an important victory for property rights advocates. But it is also a cautionary tale. As Sibilla explains, Dupree was only able to save his studio after a two-year legal and political battle in which he got pro bono assistance from the Institute for Justice -a prominent libertarian public interest law firm with extensive expertise on eminent domain cases. Most property owners threatened with similar takings don't have the energy and resources for such a prolonged struggle. And, obviously, most don't get topnotch pro bono legal help from a firm that also has extensive experience waging these battles in the court of public opinion.

The type of abusive condemnation that targeted Dupree's studio is now banned by a Pennsylvania law (the condemnation of his property was initiated just before Pennsylvania's post-Kelo eminent domain reform law took effect in Philadelphia). Some other states have also adopted strong reform laws in the wake of the Supreme Court's controversial decision in Kelo v. City of New London (2005) upholding "economic development" takings that often end up victimizing the politically weak and destroying more economic value than they create. But post-Kelo reforms in many other states are largely ineffective, allowing abusive takings to continue under other names.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of abusive takings in some parts of the country. The battle over property rights and takings energized by Kelo is far from over.

NOTE: I have done pro bono work for the Institute for Justice on other property rights cases. But I do not have any involvement in this one.