Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Philadelphia Artist Defeats Eminent Domain Land Grab, Will Keep His Studio

Philadelphia Artist Defeats Eminent Domain Land Grab, Will Keep His Studio

Nick Sibilla , Contributor

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 citywanted 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.”

James Dupree

Dupree has owned his studio in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua for almost a decade. Back in 2005, he purchased what was then a dilapidated car garage and poured considerable resources into renovating the 8,600-square-foot facility. His studio is just minutes away from Drexel University and some of Philadelphia’s finest museums, including the Barnes Foundation, the Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which houses several pieces of Dupree’s work).

But on December 27, 2012, the city seized the deed to his studio, jeopardizing its future. Appallingly, the condemnation began just four days before an eminent-domain loophole was closed. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. New Londonthat the government could use eminent domain to seize an entire neighborhood under the guise of “economic development.” Outraged, lawmakers in Pennsylvania and more than 40 other states curbed the use of eminent domain and passed new protections for property owners. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s reforms did not apply to Philadelphia and other cities until December 31, 2012.

Once appraised for over $2 million, Dupree’s studio is home to over 5,000 pieces of his oeuvre. It also doubles as both a museum and a loft space ready to rent on Airbnb. During his battle with the PRA, Dupree even painted the exterior as a visceral protest against eminent domain. “As an art studio, that thing is unique,” Dupree said in an interview.

Philadelphia thought differently. Initially, the city offered Dupree about $600,000 for the entire property. At one point, the PRA reportedly presented Dupree with another $40,000 to compensate him for all of the interior improvements and his art. Later on, Philadelphia proposed a land swap to Dupree. One of the properties was in complete disarray, with a dead cat on site.

But he wasn’t interested. “Getting my deed back was the only thing I ever wanted,” Dupree said.

Over the past year, the Institute for Justice worked tirelessly with Dupree to pressure the city to back down and respect his constitutional rights. In March, Dupree held “Stolen Dreams in the Promise Zone” at his gallery—probably the first-ever art show inspired by eminent-domain abuse. One month later, IJ, along with the ACLU of Philadelphia, organized an open-door event on location at his studio in Mantua to rally support. Concern over Dupree’s treatment catalyzed an unusual coalition, with ACLU chapters teaming up with Americans for Prosperity, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Mural Arts Program and a plethora of other local art groups.

Finally, after months of grassroots pressure, the PRA relented. Yet even in its announcement, the PRA continued to claim that Dupree was an obstacle: “In short, the inability to acquire Mr. Dupree’s property puts the prospect of bringing fresh food to this community at serious risk.”

But the city’s own redevelopment plans say otherwise. City agencies already own over 400 vacant lots—more than 40 percent of all vacant land in Mantua. In fact, government-owned vacant parcels make up roughly 15 percent of all parcels in the neighborhood. Philadelphia has plenty of land to build a supermarket; there was never a need to bulldoze Dupree Studios.

By all accounts, Mantua is in rough shape. Half of the neighborhood lives below the poverty line. Fifteen percent of homes are vacant—twice the city average. So it’s particularly galling that the city would choose to condemn one of the few vibrant properties in the neighborhood.

With the threat of condemnation gone, Dupree is keen on revitalizing the neighborhood through the power of art. With his studio, Dupree wants to return to teaching art classes and mentoring inner-city youth. As he put it, his studio “has the potential to be the lighthouse of the community.”

Since he fought condemnation and lived to tell the tale, Dupreehopes his victory “puts the use of eminent domain on notice: people are not going to allow their properties to be taken unjustly.”

“I didn’t just win. We all won. America wins with this.”

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