Philadelphia Condemns Artist’s Studio to Build a Supermarket and Parking Lot

Nick Sibilla of the Institute for Justice has a good article on the City of Philadelphia’s dubious efforts to condemn a successful artist’s studio in order to transfer it to a new private owner that would build a supermarket and parking lot on the site. This scheme isn’t quite paving paradise to put up a parking lot. But it’s almost equally egregious:

James Dupree has been celebrated around the world for his art. But now he is being condemned by the city of Philadelphia—literally.

His art has been shown at many museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts…

But the city of Philadelphia has other plans for his property. In November 2012, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) was authorized to acquire 17 properties to build a supermarket in Mantua. According to the redevelopment plans, the PRA wants to bulldoze Dupree’s studio to make room for the privately-owned grocery store and its parking lot. No tenant has been identified yet, but the supermarket project has received $2.75 million in state subsidies….

Dupree estimates professionally moving his oeuvre would cost at least a quarter of a million dollars. So just relocating his vast collection actually costs more than what he originally paid for the building.

Transforming a broken-down garage and warehouse into a top-notch art studio was no easy feat. “When I purchased the property, it was basically condemnable,” he said. The roof leaked when it rained. The plumbing and electrical were “next to nil.”

“I invested everything I owned into this property…I was basically broke,” Dupree remarked. The property itself cost a little under $200,000. Installing new electrical and plumbing: $60,000. Fixing the roof was another $68,000. Thousands more were spent on renovations, furnishings and appliances.

But Dupree sensed the property at 3617-21 Haverford Avenue had enormous potential. With over 8,600 square feet, the facility has plenty of room to train aspiring artists and showcase his oeuvre. It’s also in a great location: The studio is right across the Schuylkill River from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation and the Rodin Museum. Even closer is Drexel University, which is expanding into Mantua.

All of those investments paid off. What was once a dilapidated building is now a pillar of the local community and worth $2.2 million. His studio demonstrates what private redevelopment can accomplish.

Yet rather than respect his right to property, according to Dupree, “they would rather steal it…”

Especially when you factor in the cost of $2.75 million in taxpayer subsidies, this looks to be one of the many economic development takings that destroy more economic value than they create. Pennsylvania is actually one of the minority of states that effectively banned economic development takings in the wake of the Supreme Court’s controversial 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, upholding their constitutionality. Unfortunately, as Nick points out, the condemnation of Dupree’s studio exploited a loophole in the law, which created a five year exemption for takings in the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, that expired at the end of 2012 (I pointed out the loophole in this 2009 article):

Incredibly, [Dupree's] studio was seized just four days before an eminent domain loophole was closed. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against property owners in Kelo v. New London, many states, including Pennsylvania, responded by tightening their eminent domain laws.

But the Keystone State’s reforms did not apply to cities like Philadelphia until December 31, 2012; the studio was seized on December 27, 2012. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. The PRA seized 12 times as many properties in 2012 as they did the year before.

Nick goes on to point out that there are still some unresolved legal issues in the case, and that the taking of one of Dupree’s three lots in the area may be subject to the new, more stringent Pennsylvania eminent domain law. Hopefully, that might yet cause the PRA to back off.