A prominent Philadelphia artist is fighting the city for possession of a huge warehouse he converted into artist studios on a block where the city would like to see a supermarket.

Haverford Avenue and Mount Vernon Street, and 36th and 37th streets, together define a city block with only two habitable structures. There is a rowhouse on one of the four corners, and a long commercial building bisecting the block down the middle.

James Dupree bought the building nine years ago and turned it into an artist's paradise. He's partitioned more than 8,000 square feet of space into a series of rooms for studios, apartments, and classes.

He estimates there are 5,000 pieces of his own art in the space. They include successes -- including a series of wall sculptures inspired by a commission for outgoing William Penn Foundation president Feather Houston, and the Living Legend Award from University of Pennsylvania's Black Alumni Society -- and some failures. Leaning against the walls are ambitious installation projects that almost made it to the Philadelphia International Airport, the West Philadelphia Youth Study Center, and Tower Records.

"The closest I ever came to financial success was Tower Records," said Dupree, 64. "If they bought the copyright, I would have been in 225 stores worldwide."

The building itself is one of his major accomplishments, but it is on a block that is almost 90 percent abandoned. The city condemned the entire block as blighted, and is acquiring all the parcels, including Dupree's, through eminent domain.

"They didn't care who I was, or what I represented, or what I built, or my business. I was just part of the condemnation," said Dupree. "I got angry. How do you seize a free and clear deed?"

Dupree is in the middle of a fight with Philadelphia over eminent domain, a law which forces property owners to sell their land to the city to make room for civic projects such as roads or public buildings. In this case, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority is assembling all the lots on this block to make way for a supermarket.

Supermarket one of the neighborhood's goals

Mantua is a food desert; the last supermarket burned down 22 years ago. Residents have never managed to collectively lobby for another one because Mantua has never had a civic association.

That changed a few years ago when the public housing project Mount Vernon Manor Inc. received a $250,000 Choice Neighborhood planning grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to create a master plan for the neighborhood. Step one was to form a civic association.

The plan -- submitted last June -- calls for more affordable housing; identification of public health and safety issues; an outline of a commercial corridor; and improvements to the neighborhood's public school, McMichael Morton High. The HUD grant helped McMichael Morton attract a Promise Neighborhood grant, which subsequently saved it from the School Reform Commission chopping block.

The plan also calls for a supermarket.

"It's a very needed thing in the community, to have healthy food choices," said Mount Vernon board chair Michael Thorpe. "It should bring jobs, and develop some parcels that have been sitting vacant for many years, you know?"

There are no immediate plans to build a supermarket. Nevertheless, the city is preparing a site by assembling parcels through eminent domain. If and when a supermarket happens it will be a private business, not a public one.

'Public use' versus 'public purpose'

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ("Kelo v. New London") loosened the language for eminent domain, allowing municipalities to seize land not just for "public use" but for "public purpose."

"Even though the public may not be using the property for the development it was taken for, it would still be a 'public purpose' if it was taken for economic development," said David Snyder, an eminent domain attorney with Fox Rothschild. "Therefore it would satisfy the Fifth Amendment."

The Fifth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable government actions.

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, many states, including Pennsylvania, clamped down on eminent domain requirements, making it tougher to seize property for private development. But the commonwealth made exceptions for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The looser, federal requirements applied until Dec. 31, 2012. Dupree received a "declaration of taking" from the PRA on December 27, 2012.

The PRA drew a box around certain parts of Mantua and declare everything within that box blighted. So even if individual properties are not blighted -- such as Dupree's art studio -- it is still located within an abandoned block and can legally be declared blighted by proxy.

"The real issue is, this building was condemned, and through that they seized my deed," said Dupree. "It's killing me."

Dupree is appealing the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority's declaration of condemnation on the technicality that his building represents three parcels, and the PRA only condemned two. It can't seize two-thirds of a building.

If that doesn't work, he plans to haggle for more money. Dupree says the city is offering him $600,000 for the 8,646-square-foot building that he says is worth $2.2 million.


Editor's Note: In a previous version of this article, the reporter incorrectly stated that no developer has come forward. A developer, Westview Development Partners, has been involved in the process of preparing a site for a supermarket at 36th and Haverford Avenue. A tenant for the possible supermarket building has not been identified.