Joy Gamble was sweeping bugs off her sidewalk when I drove up to her house at 2641 Atlantic in Norwood. "Welcome to the slum,'' she said. "Would you like a tour?''
She was joking to deliver a pointed message - like the ones on the signs in her front yard: "If you want this property, you should have bought it in 1969.'' And, "Stop Eminent Domain Abuse.''
Atlantic Avenue is the key property in a game of Norwood Monopoly - a quiet neighborhood of dueling yard signs, posters in windows, even a painted van. Most of the signs say, "We support Rookwood Exchange - Let's make it happen.'' The bright yellow van says, "Held Hostage.''
Five homeowners are "hold-ons.'' (Gamble doesn't like to be called "hold-out.'') But about 60 are eager to sell to Jeffrey R. Anderson, developer of Rookwood Commons across Edmondson Road, so that the shopping center can spread out and eat up two more blocks of houses.
On Thursday, the lawyers made their final arguments. Dana Berliner and Scott Bullock of the Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., defended the "hold-ons.'' They said Norwood never proved the neighborhood fits the definition of "slum,'' "blight'' or "deteriorated.''
The city unfairly "loaned'' its eminent domain powers to the developer, which is paying for legal battles and condemnations, and that's "a blatant misuse of those laws,'' Bullock said.
"Outside of putting someone in jail, taking away a home ... is one of the most serious things government can do.''
It seemed obvious that Norwood was wrong.
But then Tim Burke, representing Norwood, made strong arguments for eminent domain. Many homes are too close to a busy street, and backing out onto Edmondson is hazardous, he said. Lights from the Rookwood parking lot are so bright residents across the street can read a newspaper at night without turning on a lamp, he said.
Norwood desperately needs to remake itself after years of declining industry and lost jobs, Burke told Judge Beth Myers. With 330,000 square feet of office space, 221 apartment units, 2,000 parking spots and 220,000 square feet of retail, the city could bring in $2 million to a debt-busted city and $400,000 for schools. "It is a public purpose to improve the economic welfare of the people,'' he said. "The neighborhood has been slowly strangled.''
I flipped and decided maybe Norwood was right.
But then I remembered who did the strangling. Not the homeowners. Norwood and the developer created Rookwood Commons. Now they say homes next door are "blighted'' by it - so they can expand it and blight some more.
It's like the time my sister licked every chocolate in the box so she could have them all.
I don't blame the homeowners who want a generous buyout. But the houses on Atlantic are no slum. A few are showing their age, but they were built in the late 1920s - and who's going to paint a house that might be flattened by a Crate & Barrel?
Joy and her husband, Carl, have been in their brown stucco three-bedroom house for 35 years. They've raised two children there. They have a cozy back yard like a secret garden, where the noise from the I-71 trench and all the traffic at Rookwood Commons is just backup music for whirring cicadas.
I'm glad I'm not the judge who has to sort it all out.
But the only blight on Atlantic is bugs and developers. You can sweep them away, but they keep coming back.
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