An eminent domain struggle in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood is coming to a close.
This weekend a community group breaks ground on a 45-unit affordable housing project. That project, a pizza shop owner says, cost him dearly.
Meletios Anthanasiadis has the right disposition for a small business owner: He's friendly and is quick to flash a grin and offer food from his pizza shop. Talk to him for a few minutes and you'll feel like you've known him for years. But bring up the topic of eminent domain, and his easy going manner disappears.
"It's terrible. It's criminal. It is criminal," he said about what happened to him.
Anthanasiadis owns the El Greco pizza shop at 2nd and Jefferson streets. He's known in the neighborhood as "Mel." He says take a look at the neighborhood and it's easy to spot the new housing that's popping up everywhere. This is a hot part of town, he says, and he was poised to make some real money.
The problem: The city took his land through eminent domain. Anthanasiadis says the city has seized seven of his properties, but not the pizza shop, to make way for an affordable-housing project. To add insult, he says the city's offered him far less than the properties are worth. Anthanasiadis says he was counting on making money from the land.
"That was my kids' education, and that was my retirement," he said. "I was looking to do excellently [sic] there and now I'm not allowed to. I'm nobody! I get kicked out of my land like I don't exist! They're my properties. I owned them for 12 years."
When Anthanasiadis moved here from Greece in the 1970's he learned English and worked two jobs to save money: selling hot dogs by day and delivering pizzas at night. He's worked hard he says and now he feels the city steam-rollered over him.
"I have a wife, two kids, a mother that love me. I'm human! Who worries about my rights? Or what rights do I have as an American citizen? There's no way you can fight it. You can only argue for a better compensation," he said.
Anthanasiadis pulls out some blueprints and lays them on the pizza shop counter.
"Take a look at this neighborhood. Developers are literally fighting over an inch of land to build on," he said. It makes no sense for the city to use tax payer dollars, Anthanasiadis says, to take his valuable land through eminent domain. He had plans to build single-family homes on those lots. Now he says his only option is to haggle with the city over what he gets paid.
Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Philadelphia Arab-American Community Development Corporation, too has big plans for the land. But his ideas are becoming a reality.
"It's all happening! It's called Tajdeed project — which means "renewal" in Arabic," Kreidie said.
Construction starts this weekend of dozens of affordable housing units.
Kreidie knows Anthanasiadis wasn't happy about the seizure of his land, but he says the pizza shop owner, "was someone who owned a lot of properties. He was in essence speculating that the properties would get higher in value and his properties were not — they were pretty junky looking."
Kreidie says he urged Anthanasiadis to challenge the amount of money offered in the eminent domain deal. He says the land takeover was necessary. The only way to get a good project here was to consolidate all the properties, including land already owned by the city, he said. In addition to supplying housing, Kreidie says he would like this project to help on the employment front too: he wants to hire as many local residents as possible for the project.
Kreidie says local politicians have been supportive and there's city, state and federal funding in the project.
City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who represents the area, calls the affordable housing complex hughely important for the community.
"The majority of the children of the long-term residents in this area can not afford to buy in the area and we thought it was hugely important that people do not feel that they are going to be displaced," she said.
On at least one point, Kreidie and the pizza shop owner agree: this neighborhood has prime real estate and it's changing quickly.
Kreidie, with the Arab-American CDC, points out that Northern Liberties is just blocks away. He says the Tajdeed affordable housing will make sure cab drivers and small shop owners don't totally get priced out.
"We have Latinos, African-Americans, Arab-Americans, whites," Kreidie said. "Everybody lives here and in pretty good harmony. And we don't want it to just be based on two lawyer families — not that there's anything wrong with that. They can buy places around here and be our neighbors."
Kreidie says while the Arab American CDC's involved in the project, the units will be open to everyone who meets the income restrictions.
"We want to make sure everybody has a place here in south Kensington."
From his pizza shop, Meletios Anthanasiadis will watch the housing project go up.