Friday, June 24, 2005 | The original nameplate can still be seen on the building that stands, for now, at 502 J St. in the Gaslamp Quarter.

The warehouse that would become the Gran Havana Cigar and Coffee lounge was erected around 1934, before phrases like “eminent domain” and “downtown redevelopment” were even coined. A blue-green square outside the door still commemorates its construction.

But that weathered slate of brass, along with other remnants of the business that Afghani immigrant Ahmed Mesdaq built on his own, will meet their end soon as downtown developers make way for a new Marriott hotel complex. In Washington yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down a long-awaited decision reinforcing the right of development agencies to acquire private properties under eminent domain if a proposed new construction serves the public good.

In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court told homeowners from New London, Conn., that the city could condemn their properties to make way for an office and hotel complex because it would promote economic development. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, held that the project “unquestionably served a public purpose.”

Critics of the decision say it allows the involuntary transfer of private property from one party to another, so long as the property would be upgraded.

“If predicted (or even guaranteed) positive side-effects are enough to render transfer from one private party to another constitutional, then the words ‘for public use’ do not realistically exclude any takings, and thus do not exert any constraint on the eminent domain power,” wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, for the minority.

It’s an emotional debate for many in San Diego, with responses to the decision falling along predictable lines.

David Allsbrook of the city of San Diego’s downtown redevelopment agency – the Centre City Development Corp. – called the landmark ruling a positive decision that will have little effect on San Diego’s ongoing downtown redevelopment.

“This really affirms the public benefit of eminent domain,” he said.

A property must be declared “blighted” before it can be condemned for redevelopment under eminent domain in California. The Connecticut homes ruled on in the decision were not blighted, although their city had been labeled “a distressed municipality” by the state.

Critics of San Diego’s downtown redevelopment say the Supreme Court decision will make it easier for agencies like CCDC to take private property from individuals like Mesdaq, the café owner, and give it to parties that will provide the city with larger tax revenues.

Vincent Bartolotta, an attorney who represented Mesdaq, said the new decision will be used “like a club.”

“I predict this decision will have a chilling effect on small business owners,” he said.

Bartolotta said that CCDC was able to declare 1,500 acres of downtown blighted for 12 years, which enabled the agency to condemn nearly any property, even while improvements were being made to some.

Mesdaq bought his property in 2000, and had a $1 million renovation plan accepted by CCDC two years later. A year after that, in June 2003, Mesdaq was informed that future designs – which were to include two stories of residential lofts – would not be approved.

Those grand plans are all but dreams now.

The spacious interior of the Gran Havana is visible through the windows. A neon sign that reads “humidor” still stands over a room of empty shelves, the cigars and patrons long gone.

Even at a time where nostalgia is king, graceful age and careful renovation won’t save spots like this from oblivion.

Please contact Ian Port directly at

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