The owner of a key piece of convention center property is gearing up to fight the city’s condemnation move.
Tower Investments – the largest landowner in the Music City Center’s proposed footprint – is seeking the dismissal of the Metropolitan Housing and Development Agency’s eminent-domain suit on Tower’s 5.6-acre tract on Fifth Avenue South. Tower Senior Vice President Alex Marks said today the company has the ability to development the property itself in a use “consistent” with the convention center project and that that ability usurps MDHA’s eminent-domain claim.
“MDHA cannot seize our property because we have the constitutional right to develop our property and that is our intention,” Marks said. “We can develop our property in such a way that enhances and accommodates the convention center, or we can develop it without the convention center.”
A conceptual drawing presented by Tower at Wednesday’s press conference showed a high-rise hotel and office space at the Fifth and Demonbreun location, and Marks indicated underground parking could be part of the plan as well.
“The drawings are relatively new, but the concept and development we’ve been talking about for two and a half years,” Tower’s John Pierce said.
Tower's attorney, Joe Conner, called condemnation a "heavy-handed" tactic and said the concept presented by Tower is a demonstration MDHA is exceeding its power.
"The statute that governs housing authorities has special exceptions when the owner has the ability and intent to develop property on its own," he said.
In its reply to MDHA’s condemnation filing, Tower cited “substantive right-to-take objections.” Typically, legal battles over eminent domain center on the price, rather than the authority of a government to seize land. As part of the filings, Tower also asked for a continuance in the Nov. 23 hearing in order to allow adequate time for discovery and depositions.
“Tower has been a supporter of the new convention center since the beginning, and today we are putting forth a win-win plan that will enable our company to develop our property while allowing the City to move forward with the Convention Center,” Marks said. “Like any property owner would, we have taken the steps necessary today to protect our private property rights that have been threatened by an abuse of government’s power of condemnation.”
Specifically, Tower claims there is no “public necessity” for the taking, because Metro Council has yet to act on the convention center proposal.
“It is not MDHA’s role to be a land speculator, which is exactly what they would be if the land is condemned and the project does not go through for some reason,” Conner said.
Tower also objects to MDHA’s claim that the 301 Fifth Ave. S. property is “blighted” and not likely for future private investment or development.
MDHA executive director Phil Ryan said Metro Council has indeed authorized the project.
"This is about a public purpose. We are building a public facility. This public purpose has been identified for years. … In February 2008, we went to the council and asked them to designate this as the site for the Music City Center," Ryan said. "There have been scores of meetings around the city and county about the project. In April of this year, the council authorized us to acquire the property. The convention center project was announced before Tower acquired the property
He vowed the city would not be "bullied" into paying more than fair-market value for any property.
"The facts are [Tower] paid $14.7 million [for the property]. We’ve offered them $14.8 million. They seem to be saying it’s worth significantly more than that in the worst market since the 1930s," Ryan said.
Tower has a legacy of supporting the Music City Center, but its relationship turned sour after the city presented its initial offers on the land. Tower claimed to have been low-balled – the company was offered $60 per square foot on its property - and refused MDHA’s offer, prompting the eminent-domain suit. Then, Tower sued for release of the three appraisals MDHA contracted on the land and which the agency refused to release, which Tower claimed is a violation of the state open-records act.
Tower and the six other parties whose property is being condemned are scheduled to be in Circuit Court at 9 a.m. Friday, where Judge Barbara Haynes will hear a motion by MDHA to consolidate all the condemnation cases into one case. Tower opposes the move.
Tower and MDHA are scheduled to be in court on Nov. 30 on the open-records claim.