By Sydney H. Schanberg
First published in Newsday, September 9, 1994
Donald Trump is cheating at cards again, appropriately in Atlantic City. He’s trying to fleece some of their property so he can expand his Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino.
And not for the first time, he has managed to stack the deck: He has found a way to get the local governmental agencies to do his dirty work for him. As chiseling schemes go, it’s a doozy.
Here’s how the scam is structured. Trump is trying to buy up a while block adjacent to Trump Plaza to put up new hotel rooms, a parking lot, limousine pickup area and the like. He wants to cash in on the business generated by a $254-million convention center scheduled to open in 1996 a short distance from the Plaza, one of the three casinos he runs in Atlantic City.
But instead of negotiating with the owners of the private parcels he needs on the block, he got the Atlantic City Planning Board and the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) to move in on the properties by edict. The planning board began issuing approvals for the project and CRDA started condemnation proceedings under the law of eminent domain.
CRDA’s rationale is that the casino expansion serves the community interest because it will support the new convention center. It’s not clear how Trump won the allegiance of these public officials — that will probably come out later, in some court proceeding, as often happens with Trump — but the result is a familiar one: Trump, the property shark and deal-maker is in line to get another freebie.
In short, the state (CRDA) plans to seize the private land at fire-sale prices, pay for it with taxpayer dollars and the hand it over to Trump for nothing, to profit from as he pleases.
Not surprisingly, two of the property owners facing condemnation have stood up to cry foul. One is Vera Coking, who has a small three-story house where she lives with her daughter, Barbara Torpey, under the shadow of Trump’s casino. The other protester is the Sabatini family, whose restaurant has sat for 30 years a little ways down the block on the prime corner of Columbia Place and Pacific Avenue.
Six years ago, the Sands casino company, which was then trying to develop the block, made an opening offer to the Sabatinis for $1.5 million. But that project died aborning. Now, though Atlantic City is bustling with development activity, CRDA says the property is worth no more than $700,000, setting that as its final figure.
CRDA’s appraiser reached this figure by comparing Sabatini’s restaurant to four other restaurants. The curious part about the comparison was that the four restaurants are all empty and out of business and none of them was in the busy casino district.
As for Vera Coking and her weatherbeaten house, CRDA set its price at $251,000. Penthouse’s Bob Guccione, another who tried to develop the block and failed, says he offered her $1 million. When she refused, he decided to build around her narrow lot and got the steel superstructure up before he pulled out. Now, several years later, CRDA says its condemnation price is $251,000. Coking’s lawyer says the property is worth $2 million.
Trump and his attorneys have tried to portray Coking, a widow, as a person who has put her personal gain above the interests of the city. Coking, responding, said: “There’s a lot of memories in here. I raised my kids in here. I’m not greedy. I just want a fair price.”
The Sabatinis are also pretty upset. “We’re not blocking progress,” said son Louis, 37, a doctor. “You can call it eminent domain and you can call it public good, but they’re trying to steal our property, and it’s rotten.”
“We’ve been good neighbors and good community members,” said his mother, Clare Sabatini. “We’ve been here for 30 years, in lean times as well as good ones. We made sacrifices to put four kids through college. All we want is a sensible offer.”
The Sabatinis and their own appraiser came in with a property value that was at least three times the $700,000 price set by CRDA.
When CRDA held a meeting last month on the condemnation decision, Trump’s cozy relationship with the government officials became quite clear. Instead of sitting in the public seats, he entered at CRDA’s end of the room and stood directly behind the board members, facing the audience. Trump and CRDA were one.
Another tip-off: Under the law, it was supposed to be a public hearing with questions allowed from anyone, but when the attorneys for Coking and the Sabatinis tried to raise several issues, they were cut short and the meeting was quickly adjourned with a bang of the gavel.
There are still some innings to go, among them a review process to examine the legality of the condemnation and the fairness of the money offers. If dissatisfied with those results, a landowner can seek a jury trial to set the price on the property. Judging from the rigged deal we’ve seen so far, Coking and the Sabatinis may have to go all the way.
In civics class way back when, we were always taught that eminent domain could be invoked only for a public purpose. In Atlantic City, we are watching it being used to benefit a private person, Donald Trump.