Friday, June 22, 2007 | Coaches at a local boxing gym are teaching their pupils a different kind of lesson from the typical jabs and hooks. They’re waging an ideological fight against National City in an attempt to stay in their building.

National City is threatening to use eminent domain to force the Community Youth Athletic Center, a nonprofit boxing gym for at-risk city youth, out of its building at 1018 National City Blvd. to make way for a planned 24-story complex that would include commercial, retail, office and residential space.

Fighting City Hall

  • The Issue: The Community Youth Athletic Center, a boxing gym for at-risk youths, is fighting National City’s plans to acquire its land and transfer it to the developer of a mixed-use project.
  • What It Means: The National City City Council will vote next month on whether to extend its eminent domain authority for another 12 years, a decision that could impact whether the CYAC property can be taken.
  • The Bigger Picture: Lawyers from the Institute for Justice, which defended homeowners in the landmark 2005 Supreme Court decision Kelo v. New London, are prepared to take up legal action on the gym’s behalf if it’s forced from the building.

This Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court eminent domain decision, Kelo v. New London, that allowed the taking of private land for other private development, regardless if the land is blighted. Lawyers from the Institute for Justice, the national nonprofit law firm that represented the homeowners in the 2005 case, are now representing the CYAC. Institute for Justice lawyers said the decision opened the floodgate for eminent domain cases victimizing minorities nationwide, something they said is happening in National City.

City officials maintain that gym board members knew when they purchased the building in 2001 that it sat in a planned redevelopment zone. The center is along a corridor of businesses on National City Boulevard the city considers “blighted,” which allows it to use eminent domain to seize the enterprises for redevelopment. The blight designation expires next month, and the City Council must decide before then whether to renew it for another 12 years.

The Kelo decision dealt with the language of the federal constitution, leaving states free to create more stringent property protections. Currently, California statutes prohibit the use of eminent domain when it transfers property to private interests unless it is determined to be “blighted.” If the council votes to extend the designation for the land that includes the gym, Institute for Justice lawyers say they will litigate the same theory they did in the Kelo case in hopes that California courts will create more protection for property owners than the federal ruling provided.

Gym board members said they first heard of the potential for eminent domain in a Feb. 28, 2005 letter from the Community Development Commission, the city’s redevelopment agency, encouraging them to negotiate with developers from the Park Village project to sell the property. The CDC gave the developers exclusive negotiating rights to the land when it approved the project six days earlier. And cooperating with them might make the gym qualify for certain tax advantages under “friendly condemnation,” according to the letter.

When the gym refused offers to sell, lawyers representing the Beauchamp Family Trust sent a letter April 25, 2005 saying developers would have to resort to eminent domain.

“If I do not hear from you by May 2, 2005, I will assume you are not interested in Mr. Beauchamp’s offer and will request, on behalf of the Beauchamp Family Trust, that the CDC proceed with appropriate steps under the law to acquire the Property,” the letter reads.

Beauchamp first offered $405,000 for the building, but raised the offer when the CDC appraised the building at $665,000. A Jan. 27, 2006 letter from Beauchamp’s lawyers offered $665,000, an interim location in a Beauchamp-owned property for below-market rent and assistance with moving expenses. The CYAC could also remain in the building until the redevelopment began, according to the letter. Gym board members declined all offers.

National City Mayor Ron Morrison said CYAC has known from the beginning that its building sat in a designated redevelopment zone. The city encouraged the center occupancy there, he said, because it was available at the time and had a central location. “When they moved in they knew this was going to happen,” he said. “The Park Village deal is not an outsider group, they have owned a majority of the rest of that block for decades. CYAC is the new kid on the block in this case.”

On Tuesday night, community members in support of the club rallied behind City Hall, chanting “save our kids” and “save our gym” before heading in to a public hearing on the city’s proposal to extend its eminent domain authority for another 12 years.

During the public hearing, gym supporters spent hours attesting to the gym’s positive results. Many, including the center’s co-founder and director Carlos Barragan Jr., pleaded with the mayor and council members to support the gym and let it stay put.

Morrison replied to Barragan by saying he resented the gym’s attempt to disparage the city after all the funding and support it has provided. “The implication given is that we’re trying to kick the kids out,” Morrison said. “That is a really bad rap this organization is trying to give the city.”

The city has given CYAC more money than any other youth program, more than $200,000, Morrison said, and it has also suggested several options for the gym’s relocation. “We have spent endless hours, endless days … the amount of time spent has been enormous in trying to work with them to try to come up with a permanent site for them that will be something really adequate for their needs,” he said.

The interest in the program has grown steadily since Barragan and his father, Carlos Sr., set up a punching bag in their back yard in 1991 that attracted neighborhood kids wanting to let off steam. The boxing program the two men implemented grew by word of mouth, and they soon needed to rent a two-car garage to accommodate everyone who wanted to participate.

In 2001, with the help of donations from UPS and the Barona Band of Mission Indians, they bought a 3,700-square-foot former gun shop in downtown National City. Community members and city officials pitched in to help remodel the gym for a January 2002 opening. Now, about 50 at-risk youths per day benefit from the free programs.

Along with coaching boxing techniques, the volunteer-run center also provides tutors for its athletes. There’s a long waiting list to get into the program, and participants must pledge to stay in school and maintain their grades.

The city has offered the gym numerous options for relocation, Morrison said, including a deal in which it could lease a city building for $1 per year for the next 50 years. The gym turned it down, he said, because board members wanted to own the building.

CYAC board member Pat Russell said at the end of the day, none of the options was suitable for the gym’s needs for various reasons. Regardless, he said, they shouldn’t have to sell. “We teach children here the values, one of the values is respect,” he said. “We don’t believe eminent domain, saying you have to leave your house so that we can build condos here, is the right way to do this.

“We are going to stand up to the right thing to do. If you’re going to teach that, you have to live up to that, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Please contact Nina Petersen-Perlman directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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