light rail drives China Chili out of business. it was my favorite restaurant on central.
His light touch paves the way for light rail phoenix negotiator wheels, deals for property
Sean Holstege | Apr. 1, 2006 12:00 AM
For $95 an hour, Jack Tevlin dispenses justice and taxpayer money like King Solomon from a ninth-floor conference table above Phoenix's First Avenue.
He mediates property disputes between private owners in light rail's path and a city now willing to bend over backward to avoid irritating them.
The city has granted Tevlin, a private citizen, extraordinary power to keep these cases out of Condemnation Court. Single-handedly, he offers on-the-spot deals for the cost of land, construction and dislocation. If there is a handshake across the table, Tevlin's word is final.
Now 58, the silver-haired New York native earned $22,000 in contract fees last year, a measure of the sheer volume of work. Of 223 cases, the city settled all but 14 through mediation. Tevlin's soft-spoken approach helped close roughly 150 of them, but friends in City Hall ask him jokingly: "How much did you give away today, Jack?' "
Light rail will pass through three cities, and Valley Metro Rail relies on those cities to purchase the necessary land along the route.
Tempe does not use mediation but settled almost all its light-rail property cases. Half of the trackside property was held by three owners, and nowhere did the city need an entire parcel. Mesa has just gotten started because Valley Metro sent right-of-way listings to the city last fall. Mesa also plans to do everything in-house and has no full property seizures.
In Phoenix, Tevlin has seen the absentee landlord of a slice of dirt tracked to Iran. Wheeler-dealer speculators who value their land six times higher than the city does. An octogenarian who kissed his hand before taking the city to court. But mostly, Tevlin, who retired from a 21-year City Hall career in 2003, meets with mom-and-pop property owners who just want a fair price.
The city tapped Tevlin last year, after the number of unresolved property cases began piling up. Property owners flooded Mayor Phil Gordon's office with complaints about low-ball appraisals and recalcitrant out-of-town consultants.
Memories of property fights over built and unbuilt freeways still seared the minds of property owners and city leaders. As Arizona's biggest public-works project neared construction, owners feared City Hall would steamroll them. City Hall feared the holdouts would hold up a $1.5 billion light-rail job.
"If it ties up construction, you pay heavy penalties. You start creating enemies where you don't need them," said Tevlin, a longtime project booster. "It's just not worth it.
"This is more than just appraisal. These are very personal things for people, and unless you listen to the story behind the property, then you could be trampling over something very sensitive."
One that broke down
The one that got away was China Chili, a popular family-owned lunchtime spot on Central Avenue at Mitchell Drive. It served its last meal on Friday. It will soon be bulldozed.
Valley Metro needs to slice30 feet off the rented pink cinder-block building to make way for the Osborn light-rail station. Since December, the restaurant has received eviction notices and been granted a series of extensions, which, for manager Johnny Vong, have been like stays of execution.
"Just last week, somebody came in for a take-out order for the governor, and I said, 'Tell her we're getting kicked out of here,' " Vong said.
The problem, Tevlin said, is that the city has offered China Chili as much as law allows. Federal law prevents public agencies from enriching private entities, and Arizona law, unlike in some other states, precludes paying a dislocated business for lost work. Tevlin can cover only moving expenses and lease rights. He offered several times more than the city is required to pay.
Vong said it's a fraction of what the restaurant needs to survive. His family has found a new downtown site where China Chili can reopen in six months, but Vong fears the loans may not carry his relatives to move-in day. He wants the city to cover lost income in the meantime.
Days before the final notice, the restaurant had made no plans to close. The city said the restaurant procrastinated. Vong said there were no good places to move.
As a tenant, Vong couldn't negotiate the future of the property. Once the owner agreed to sales terms with the city, the restaurant could no longer stay.
Valley Metro said it needs the property by mid-April or the contractor will have to halt work, costing as much as $12,000 a day.
"There's no cushion in the schedule. The contractor doesn't have enough of an area to work in," said Rick Simonetta, Valley Metro chief executive.
Vong said dealing with the city was intimidating.
"My boss is traditional Chinese," he said. "There was a language barrier. He didn't understand the system. I didn't understand the system. We could have handled it better. We didn't get a lawyer."
Leon Woodward has made a well-documented career of poking thorns into City Hall's side. He has cajoled, threatened and sued to protect his interests as a downtown parking-lot owner.
When Valley Metro identified his downtown lot on East Jefferson Street for a temporary construction easement, Woodward and the city knew a showdown was brewing.
"The city's fingerprints are all over the appraisals. Their intent was to use taxpayers dollars to cheat property owners," he said.
He approached attorneys and began preparing a civil rights lawsuit, seeking an injunction to halt light rail's tracks. Separately he explored a ballot measure to restrict the scope of the city's power to seize property.
Woodward said that was when he started getting respect from the city.
In Tevlin's version: "It wasn't worth it to get in a big fight with Leon for that amount of money," which totaled $14,000, even though the price per square foot was on the high end of the market.
"Our goal is to give them every penny they are entitled to," said Maria Hyatt, the city's light-rail project manager.
Woodward noticed the different tack a year and a half ago, and he credits the mayor.
"You don't see me trying to stop light rail, because they started treating me right," Woodward said, adding that Tevlin and city real estate manager Manny Diaz, who sits in on mediations, "are going over backwards to help people and treat them fairly and with respect."
One ideal case
Rosaline Roda got what she wanted when she drove from Tucson for one recent sitting with Tevlin and Diaz.
She had expected to haggle. Before the meeting, she glanced around the office like a child at the dentist.
But there was no pulling of teeth. Wearing a button-down blue shirt (no jacket or tie) Tevlin scanned a quarter-inch-thick stack of papers. He coolly summed up the issues with her three contiguous light-industrial properties in the 1700 block of East Washington Street.
Roda, with her lawyer son at her side, calmly countered. The appraisal was old. A new plan to slice off a corner of her property would render it useless. Light rail would wipe out access. The city demanded her chain-link fence be replaced with more-expensive cinder block or wrought iron.
Tevlin looked at Roda's maps and appraisals. Half an hour into the meeting he threw out a number, roughly doubling the city's initial offer. The city would pay for the fence and let Roda bundle the properties into one usable plot. The Arizona Republic agreed not to publish details of the deal to avoid prejudicing future cases.
Roda's eyes widened a smidgen and she nodded. The deal was done before Tevlin could finish describing it. At Roda's request, he put it in writing.
"I was pleased everything got done right there. And surprised," Roda said afterward. "I was comfortable with him. He listened to us."
Tevlin and Diaz say Roda is typical of most people they see.
Every Friday, Tevlin gets a packet of documents on the doorstep of his Encanto District home. Usually, it contains about four or five files.
"Mostly it's mom-and-pop property owners. Only a couple have attorneys. People are pretty savvy about their property," Tevlin said. "I have been surprised there has not been as much greed as I expected."
The test case
Dianne Scherer had helped get light-rail bonds passed. But when she learned two years ago that light rail would wipe out 10 feet of her Phoenix Board of Realtors building on North 19th Avenue, she was nonplussed about the offer.
"Dianne was very aggressive. She ran us through the ringer on it, and we deserved it," said Ed Zuercher, deputy chief of staff in the Mayor's Office.
Agreeing on the value of the land was the easy part. The sticking point was the city's figure for rebuilding the front of the office. It proved to be about a quarter of the real cost.
She gave the city two construction estimates, and a light went on in City Hall. Now, Tevlin tells petitioners the city will pay actual costs if they bring two estimates. Before Scherer, the city relied on out-of-date formulas in construction tomes.
"We were the first to go through this. I'm really proud of how the city reacted," she said. "They were really good to work with but they were feeling their way along."
Bringing it home
After a day judging such cases, Tevlin says he returns home with a clear conscience. He figures spending extra money on properties buys goodwill and speeds construction of a project he has long advocated.
In an assessment shared by Valley Metro and federal auditors, he sums it this way: "On property acquisition, we'll probably be overbudget. The more serious problem is if we're behind schedule, because then we're into construction delays and the costs of those are a lot higher."
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