The city of Philadelphia wants to take over about three dozen tracts of land for a community development group's affordable housing project in the city's Kensington section.

What lies behind that simple statement is a tangled tale about a Greek-American pizza shop owner, an Arab-American community leader, and a dream that divides them.

It's also an object lesson in the complicated law around the notion of eminent domain, the term for a government's right to take private land for a public purpose.

Such use of eminent domain rarely comes without controversy, and in this case the city has budgeted more than $1 million to seal the deal.

The first character in this tale is pizza shop owner Meletios Anthanasiadis, better known in the neighborhood as "Mel." He runs a tiny corner establishment called El Greco Pizza and Luncheonette at 2nd and Jefferson streets.

Anthanasiadis moved here from Greece in the 1970s and set out to build a life, learning English and working two jobs to save money: selling hot dogs out of a cart by day, delivering pizza at night.

And he started acquiring little pieces of Philadelphia.

"In the older years, when the properties were priced down to earth, I picked up one here, one there," he said. "I accumulated a few — some garages on 1500 block of Cadwallader and 1500 block of Bodine Street."

A done deal

Last fall, Anthanasiadis had to go into the hospital for hernia surgery. Right before he went in, the city sent him a notice:

"I received a letter from the city that they are contemplating taking my properties under eminent domain so they can give them to a developer," he said.

His reaction?

"Actually, I went nuts. I went nuts. How can this happen in United States out of all places? ... They acted like they're gods."

Anthanasiadis says by the time he got out of the hospital and got back home, the eminent domain seizure of seven of his properties was a done deal.

The city wants to put his properties together with some city-owned land and some other parcels to set the Arab American Community Development Corporation up to work with a private developer to build affordable housing in the rapidly changing neighborhood.

The other side

A few blocks away, a supporter of the project sees the situation quite differently from the pizza shop owner.

The second character in this tale of eminent domain is Marwan Kreidie, the executive director of the Philadelphia Arab American CDC.

The group rents office space from the Al Aqsa Mosque and Academy — right across the street from the land in question. Kreidie knows Anthanasiadis, but he says the real question people should be asking is: "What's best for the neighborhood what's best for the community?"

Paging through a handful of plans, Kreidie's excitement about the project is clear.

"It's primarily three- and four-unit. It's primarily geared toward families," he said. "There will be parking in the middle. We'd tentatively like to have retail about halfway up Cadwallader, parking, green space. And they will all be done as passive houses, which means they will be ultra energy conserving."

Right now, the land is home to a car repair business, but most of it is vacant and strewn with wind-blown trash.

Who's right?

So is the city within its rights to take the land?

Attorney David Snyder is in Philadelphia but practices eminent domain law across the country. He declined to comment on the specifics of the case.  

But speaking generally of the state of eminent domain law in Pennsylvania, he said, "to exercise the extreme power of eminent domain, the government has to be authorized by statute to condemn for a particular purpose. In addition, it has to satisfy the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutional requirements that it be for a public use. Having said that, the term public use is a very broad definition and can be used for a variety of different things, including blight."

Snyder says Pennsylvania law makes it difficult for property owners to challenge the government's right to take land.

There is some financial help built into the system for distressed property owners. If someone successfully challenges a taking of property, Snyder says all the legal bills are paid by the government entity. It's different for landowners who only challenge the compensation they'll receive for the property. Win or lose, they're entitled only to $4,000 to pay for an attorney or appraiser.

A public good?

The project's public purpose, says Kreidie, is reflected in the housing development's name: Tajdeed, which is Arabic for "renewal."

"This is a public good," he said. This is the creation of a first-rate housing project that will serve 45 families."

Kreidie says this may be a final opportunity to maintain the neighborhood's socio-economic diversity.

"We really look at this as the last chance to maintain low and moderate income in this area," he said. "If you look around, people are building $400,000 houses around here. And I'm not against that. I mean, I live five blocks from here, and I have a nice house, and there should be private development."

Kreidie points out that no one would lose their home as part of this taking of land and he says more than half the land in the housing development's footprint is already owned by the city.

Sitting in her office in City Hall, Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez says Tajdeed fits into a bigger picture of development in the area.

"That community," she said," it borders Fishtown and Northern Liberties, and we've seen tremendous redevelopment and investment."

She says this project is about getting land into active, productive use. "People saw what was going on in Northern Liberties; they saw what was going on in Fishtown. So there's a level of speculation here," she said. "There's so many properties in the mix of this that are city-owned, so they're already our assets, it's an opportunity for us to leverage that land in a broader project for a greater good."

Back at the pizza shop, Anthanasiadis says he's not going quietly.

"Am I the only one that thinks this is wrong? I don't know. Common sense what's right and wrong. This is terribly, terribly wrong. My properties are garages that are being rented. Even if they offer me the fair market value, I still wouldn't want to sell. I bought those properties for my retirement."

Anthanasiadis says he is saving up money to hire a lawyer.