“When I saw the Statue of Liberty from the ship, the inscription gave me great hope for my new life in this country. ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ The promise of freedom inspired me. I believed in America then, but now I am not so sure,” said a 1988 letter to the editor from George Sarris, owner of the Fish Market.
In the letter, he explained that a plan to take his restaurant away from him led him to doubt his freedom as an American citizen. The City of Birmingham and UAB coveted the restaurant he had labored to make a success to build a massive new clinic for 600 doctors, and they planned to take his property through eminent domain. This was what government did in the country where he was born, Greece. He thought America was different.
His fears were not unfounded. UAB’s Health Services Foundation had approached Mayor Arrington in 1987 for assistance in developing a clinic for UAB doctors to serve patients from Birmingham, across the United States, and even other countries. South African businessmen, Saudi Arabian princes, and South Korean politicians came to Birmingham to seek treatment from specialists at UAB. Facilities in Hillman Hospital and UAB’s other aging buildings were hopelessly out of date. Operating rooms were too small, laboratories for testing blood and tissue were in other buildings, and networks for critical patient data were inadequate. Doctors were beyond frustration.
After we settled on couches around a coffee table in the Mayor’s office, Dr. John Kirklin, the world renowned heart transplant pioneer proclaimed gravely, “UAB’s national prominence as a hospital and research center will be lost without new, modern facilities.” Dr. Dick Briggs, President of the Health Services Foundation explained that attracting research doctors and their federal grants required opportunities to do clinical trials, treat patients with diseases they were studying, and laboratories with the latest analytic capabilities. These researchers also taught in UAB’s School of Medicine and supervised medical interns and residents at UAB, Children’s, and VA Hospitals.
“I certainly recognize that UAB’s importance as a nationally recognized medical and research center. I also know that UAB has replaced U. S. Steel as the largest employer in Alabama,” said the mayor. “However, our capacity to assist in development of a new facility is limited. The city’s budget is considerably smaller than yours.”
“We’re not asking for grants or loans from the city, state or federal government for this project,” said Dr. Kirklin. “The physicians in the foundation have set aside $103 million dollars and can raise more if necessary. We need help in assembling four blocks of property for this new state of-the-art facility.”
Dr. Briggs leaned forward and said, “Dr. Arrington, I’m sure you know that many Negro families were forced to move from their homes to make way for UAB’s campus twenty years ago. I don’t doubt that there is a great deal of resentment toward UAB and rightfully so. There are no residents within the proposed site, but we want businesses and property owners to be treated fairly and UAB’s reputation in the community to be enhanced this time.”
“I appreciate your concern. Where do you propose to develop this new facility?” asked the mayor.
Dr. Briggs unrolled a map of the UAB campus that sprawled from I-65 to 20th Street, and pointed to four blocks opposite the old Hillman Hospital on 20th Street. “The first clinic building will be between 5th and 6th Avenues, and soon after that will be a second clinic across Sixth Avenue. A parking deck and offices will be on the block east of the first clinic and the block east of the second clinic will be for long-term expansion.”
“Four whole blocks. I’m sure Wendy’s, Arby’s, and the Fish Market won’t want to move away from their customers at UAB, but it’s a major development and certainly critical to the future of Birmingham. How can the city help?”
“We want to undertake this expansion of the Medical Center in partnership with you and the City of Birmingham. Our bond underwriters, Porter, White and Company, has advised that the best way to assemble this much property is through the city’s urban renewal power of eminent domain. Every one of these three dozen property owners know that they’ll get the highest price by holding out to be the last one to sell. We need eminent domain powers to force sales at an appraised value.”
“I believe that property owners should get fair market value, but not three, four, or five times the value. That’s extortion. Urban renewal gives cities the power to require sale of properties for fair market value, but UAB could do the same as a state institution,” said the mayor.
“We could, but a partnership with the city will be stronger legally and politically. Frankly, we don’t want to offend businesses and state legislators. No telling what bills they might pass in retaliation,” said Dr. Kirklin. “Will you help us, Dr. Arrington?”
“You’ll have my full support. We’ll have to bring the City Council along. Using eminent domain to take property from small businessmen will be a tough sell.”
“Jim White of Porter, White, and Yardley and his staff are already doing title work and getting appraisals. They are prepared to take the lead with the property owners,” said Dr. Briggs. “Of course, we want to keep this confidential as they approach each property owner to get options.”
“Ed LaMonte of my staff will be in touch with Jim today to offer any assistance he needs from us. Thank you for bringing us this important project.”
Mike Dobbins, Director of Planning, and I were in Ed’s office after lunch to talk about the city’s role in the new project. Previously Mike was a Borough Planner for Mayor Lindsey in New York City and I was Chief Planner for Baltimore’s urban renewal agency. We decided that rather than create a new urban renewal plan for the project, the existing Midtown Urban Renewal Plan should be expanded. Mike, an architect as well as a planner, suggested retaining an architect to prepare an urban design plan for the entire site as early as possible. I agreed to draft the text and map amendments to the Midtown Plan for review by Porter, White and Company. Ed directed me to review my draft with the city’s counsel Alton Parker and Sam Frazier of Spain and Gillon first.
* * *
“UAB Expanding?” was the headline on the Post-Herald’s business section a couple of weeks later. The article quoted several owners who received offers for their properties in the blocks across 20th Street from UAB on behalf of an undisclosed buyer. UAB was everyone’s primary suspect. Some owners complained they were told selling was inevitable—it was just a matter of time. A couple said they would hold out until UAB was ready to pay their price. The Birmingham News ran a similar article that afternoon with a picture of Fish Market owner George Sarris. The next day a Post-Herald editorial called upon UAB to be be open about their expansion plans and be fair to neighboring businesses.
Ed LaMonte called me and reported UAB President Scotty McCallum was very unhappy with the bad press and wanted to have an open meeting with business and property owners to clear the air. The city would lead the meeting and lay out the entire process. “With your experience in Baltimore, you’re the best person to run this meeting. Do you agree?” asked Ed. I acknowledged that I had made similar presentations at public hearings in Baltimore to help Johns Hopkins Hospital expand. He also mentioned that McCallum had put the Porter, White acquisition efforts on hold.
A week later I stood on a temporary stage in the lobby of the Parliament House on 20th Street near the spiral staircase before about one hundred people, mostly men seated in folding chairs. I guessed that those with an open collar were business proprietors and restaurateurs, and those with suits and ties were property owners or their lawyers. In the front row was a man with a scowl on his face, black hair swept straight back, arms folded and wearing a starched tunic and baggy, checkered chef’s pants. I recognized George Sarris from his newspaper picture.
I presented a step-by-step review of the entire sequence from announcement of the proposal, which was occurring at that meeting, to a public hearing before the City Council before their vote on the proposal to the negotiations on price based upon appraisals with their right of appeal to the courts.
A well-dressed lawyer was first to the microphone with a question about treatment of long-term leases. Several business owners complained bitterly that this would bankrupt them. George came to the microphone, and said, “I came to America from a small village in Greece, I began by washing dishes in my uncle’s restaurant, I became a United States citizen, I opened the Fish Market, I worked like a dog, I paid my workers, and I’m supporting my wife and children. You’re going to take all that away from me? This is not America. I’m going to fight you every step of the way.” His voice cracked as he said these words. He covered his eyes with his forearm and sat down heavily.
“You’re the point man for this land grab. You should be ashamed of yourself,” someone shouted from the back row. A raucous chorus of loud affirmations followed.
George threw up his hands, stood, pointed at me and said “You’ve not heard the end of this,” and moved toward the door.
“I’m ready to listen, Mr. Sarris. Call me. Let’s keep talking.”
After catching George in the lobby, Bob Blalock, reporter for the Birmingham News, approached me with his narrow, spiral-bound tablet and pencil in hand and asked what was next. “Coffee,” I said. “I’m going to have coffee with George and the others. One at a time. I plan is to listen to their concerns, clear up misunderstandings, answer their questions, and try to find common ground. I believe in communication…and coffee,” I told him. He nodded mechanically and scribbled in his tablet.
“You’re going to have the jitters from all that caffeine,” he said with a grin. I shrugged.
* * *
Bob’s story was on the front page under a large color picture of a yellow, front end loader with a homemade sign in it’s raised maw: “Eminent domain. Your property could be next!” George had it parked on a vacant lot next to the Fish Market. The story opened with a quote from George, “The city and UAB want to cut my legs off at the knees. I won’t let it happen. UAB can build their clinic somewhere else. I am an American citizen.” The urban renewal process was summarized accurately, and my commitment to having coffee and listening was quoted. UAB declined to comment. On my way home, I drove past the loader with the sign and thought that George should go into public relations.
I called George and asked if I could come by after the lunch rush. He brusquely replied, “Yeah. I’ll talk to you. After 2 o’clock.” After an hour of discussion, George said, “Look, I know this is your job. You’ve got to do this, but at least don’t lie to us. OK?” I promised to be honest and keep him informed. For the first time, I saw his face light up with his wonderful smile. Again, I thought he should go into PR.
I filled my days with meetings with proprietors. I walked from the uniform rental store to the plumber’s office to the pawn shop to a luncheonette. Almost everyone offered coffee. They asked if the project was funded and really going to happen, how soon they would have to relocate, when they could get an offer, what help could they get in finding a location and paying for the move. I answered their questions, left my card, and encouraged them to call me anytime. Some were angry and vowed to stop the project, others were sullen and resigned. I dropped in a second and third time as I made my rounds. I drank a lot of coffee and learned where the public restrooms were. Bob did brief articles in the Birmingham News with comments from George and other business owners. He reported that I was drinking lots of coffee.
The day the project was in the newspapers, the Mayor assured the City Council that Ed LaMonte, Mike Dobbins and I would brief them and keep them fully informed. By the time we met with each of them, they had received letters from George, and most had calls from business people they knew. A couple said they would reluctantly support the mayor, but most sympathized with small businessmen and agreed with George that UAB should find another place on their campus for their clinic. We listened and then made our case, citing the economic importance of the Medical Center and the procedure for providing fair market value through appraisals. Ed reported to the mayor that getting five of the nine votes would be a challenge. The mayor said he would visit with some that he had supported.
On the day scheduled for the 9:30 a. m. Public Hearing to be followed by the vote of the City Council, the chamber was approaching the Fire Marshall’s listed capacity twenty minutes by 9:00 a.m. Businessmen filled the front rows, and George was affably chatting with City Councilors on the dais. I groaned. President McCallum and Dr. Briggs were seated near the front. Soon a policeman blocked the door to the chamber, and people shuffled off elevators and crowded into the hallway. They could stand and listen to the meeting from there.
Dr. Briggs, the first speaker, recited statistics on the economic impact of UAB and said the new clinic was critical to the growth and development of UAB. Large maps showed the four blocks to be acquired. I followed with a succinct explanation of the urban renewal process with emphasis on how the appraisal process assured fair market compensation to businesses. I concluded that the continued growth of the Medical Center represented the future of Birmingham.
George approached the lectern in a green blazer with UAB stitched on the breast pocket. He also wore a large button that said “No Eminent Domain!” He formally greeted the mayor, the City Council, and the businessmen in the chambers. He proclaimed his love for UAB and said the doctors and nurses were his customers. But he argued they could build their clinic on campus and not destroy the businesses that served UAB. He reprised his odyssey from a Greek village to Birmingham and concluded with a plea to stop eminent domain. Dozens of speakers came to the lectern. One woman said the loss of her father’s business would mean her children could not go to college. Others said eminent domain was unfair and un-American.
Finally the Council prepared to consider the ordinance authorizing the urban renewal plan. A Councilor known to be in opposition called for a roll call vote instead of the usual voice vote. The Clerk read each name. The Mayor’s two solid supporters voted “Aye” but were offset by two business advocates’ “Nay” votes. The next two votes supported the plan. I stood next to Dr. McCallum as we awaited one more vote to give us a majority of five. One more councilor opposed the plan, and then the deciding “Aye” rang out. Dr. McCallum winked at me and smiled, but did not telegraph his pleasure at the vote. I took my cue from him and resisted the temptation to visibly celebrate our victory with a triumphant fist pump.
A week later, UAB announced that only three blocks would be needed for the new clinic, and the block that included the Fish Market and the yellow front end loader would not be acquired. I was a little crestfallen, but I was also glad that George had been spared. I had come to respect him and even enjoyed sparring with him.
After lunch, I stepped into the Fish Market, and George saw me through the serving window. He rushed out, pumped my hand, and had someone bring coffee for us. He was enthusiastic about planning for ordering a new oven and redecorating the dining room now that he knew he wouldn’t have to move. He said business increased during the controversy, and he needed a bigger building. He paused, raised his eyebrows, and said, “Mike, you know, maybe I fought too hard.”