Suzette Kelo once made headlines for her stance against a giant pharmaceutical company while attempting to save her little pink house from demolition.
Kelo’s city of New London, Conn., claimed eminent domain authority for economic development purposes, which was not clearly legal at the time. The landmark Supreme Court decision Kelo vs. New London ruled in 2005 that governments may take private property if it means removing “urban blight” or stimulating the economy, such as making way for a large company to build a facility.
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens famously opined that an expanded tax base supersedes the right to own property. This led to a sea change in eminent domain takings practices — whereas property was once taken strictly for public infrastructure needs, now it is increasingly being taken for numerous other purposes that can be chalked up to economic development.
Flash forward to 2020 in generally property-rights-friendly Texas, now that a major university has its eyes on a submarine sandwich shop situated in an old house in Denton, Texas, a college town of about 136,000. In this case it’s a government entity alone (a state university) demanding that small businesses must step aside.
The University of North Texas (UNT) paid the first installment of the $1.4 million price tag for the restaurant, New York Sub Hub, on Wednesday, according to the Denton Record-Chronicle.
“Everyone should keep an eye out whether UNT ends up with property in the future and it is used for ‘classrooms/dorms’ or if a developer will end up with the property,” warned Hunter Christensen, the second-generation owner of the sub shop.
UNT has for about 15 years (starting with sharp tuition fee hikes following the Texas Legislature’s tuition de-regulation bill, but that’s another story) been engaged in a massive campus transformation effort, which involves expanding its footprint from the campus proper to prime frontage along and across Interstate Highway 35, a major thoroughfare through town.
Across the interstate, a new football stadium and athletic complex (the site of a demolished multi-story hotel and golf course) and the construction of a pedestrian bridge to span the highway, began to squeeze in on a small business district which contained several student favorites and daily necessities. In time, a popular IHOP restaurant was purchased, the only grocery store within walking distance taken, and several specialty restaurants and shops sold out facing tremendous pressure from the university.
In the way of these plans was New York Sub Hub — formerly the New York Sub-Way (the name changed for obvious reasons) — and a small juice bar, Naranja Cafe. The deal, per the local paper, was a way to avoid entering condemnation proceedings.
Christensen, the second-generation owner of the beloved sub shop, said the deal was brokered by his father. “The rest of the family had no idea that an agreement was made and we weren’t consulted before signing,” Christensen said, via the Record-Chronicle.
Intra-family politics aside, the deal comes after years of conflict between the Christensen family and the university. Christensen has posted that university president Neil Smatresk was a regular customer, even after the shop was targeted for removal. He became a spokesman for a confederation of small businesses in the area that are also on the chopping block — none of whom accepted a payment offer or made a counter-offer, the Record-Chronicle reported. Letters informing the businesses of UNT’s attempt to condemn the properties came in October.
According to a Facebook post from Christensen and the Record-Chronicle, the store will be allowed to continue making sandwiches for a year in exchange for a slight reduction in the sale price.
No press release or statement from UNT could be found at the time of writing.
From the hip: As an irony as delicious as Sub Hub’s No. 7 on wheat, the second-to-last press release on UNT’s news section was for an author visit concerning a book titled “The Yellow House,” by Sarah M. Broom — a journalism classmate of this writer’s as it happens (yes, at UNT). She a passionate liberal and I a die-hard conservative, we had many famous discussions over coffee at yet another now-demolished local business but on the other side of campus. But she was very much correct in my then-mispronunciation of “N’awlins.”
Broom recounted her fondness for her home and its later demolition by the city of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina flooding, which came roughly around the same time as the Kelo decision. In her award-winning book, Broom reportedly explores what she considers to be “systematic disenfranchisement” in the French Quarter and why so many houses were built in a flood-prone area to begin with. We look forward to ordering a copy soon.
There’s another area of agreement here: be it Kelo’s pink house or Broom’s yellow house, there’s something fundamentally rotten in our nation when it comes to private property versus big money interests.
In the cases of the pink house or the Sub Hub, the demolition is not due to the deterioration of studs and form boards from flood waters, but of the foundations of private property rights that underpin our American republic. Property takings for the public good (e.g. highway right-of-way, removing hazards to public health, government infrastructure, etc.) is part-and-parcel to having government. And now, post-Kelo, that power extends to a government’s preferred form of private-sector development. But when it becomes a matter of institutional vanity that’s where the power must be checked.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation assesses the situation in Texas in more detail: “The current nature of eminent domain laws tilts the scales against property owners. Texas’ lack of eminent domain law enforcement measures ensures condemners will press and prod until their intrusions extend far beyond what public necessity demands.”
The human factor here is best summed up by Christensen’s latest Facebook post on New York Sub Hub’s page. It is posted below in its entirety. Read and weep.
Good morning everyone,I wanted to respond to what transpired yesterday after a little sleep, or the attempt to sleep,…
Posted by New York Sub-Hub: Denton on Friday, February 21, 2020
Good morning everyone,
I wanted to respond to what transpired yesterday after a little sleep, or the attempt to sleep, so here it goes:
First and foremost I want to thank you for every single person that has stood by our side and supported us from the beginning. Not just when UNT was threatening Eminent Domain, but from the VERY beginning and through the 40+ years we have served this community. Trust me when I say the pleasure is all ours. The people in this community are truly special and we really appreciate everything.
As the Denton Record Chronicle published, UNT has purchased the property/building in which we sit. The purchase price does not include the business. While I was vaguely aware of off/on talks between UNT and my father (the same with UNT and the other properties), I was unaware a contract was agreed upon and signed until I was called for a quote with my thoughts on the contract yesterday evening. Obviously I was blindsided by that. I had no idea it was signed over 2 weeks ago.
From the beginning, day in and day out, I have thought about this situation and what to do about it and how to go about fighting back. It has been rough to say the least. I found strength to keep going every single day because of you guys. When I was tired or running low, it seemed that someone would say just the right thing to light that fire back up! I was told that I would be able to fight to save the store. Apparently the thought of getting less through court (which I personally believe wouldn’t have happened) was enough to scare my dad into selling “willingly.” But see, that is exactly what they wanted. Now they own the property WITHOUT using Eminent Domain so they can do as they wish and not be shackled to the “public use” guise they tend to use. Everyone should keep an eye out whether UNT ends up with property in the future and it is used for “classrooms/dorms” or if a developer will end up with the property. I even tried monetary offers to my dad to let me keep fighting but was turned down with no explanation as to why.
Some people have probably looked at me and asked why are you fighting? “They are going to take it in one way or another.” Honestly, the reason is simple. I am a fighter. I am not going to roll over to injustice because it is daunting or is hard or stressful or have a slim chance at success. That is just not who I am, have been or will be. I have mentioned to many people my efforts were more than NYSH alone. It was for Naranja, Oriental Express, Campus Bookstore and Eagle Car Wash. They are my friends as well and they don’t deserve this. They are still fighting though and I will continue to speak up for them! I also am fighting for the future. For those that don’t have the stage that we do. Those people that live around UNT that won’t have the chance that we did. This has been and always, in my eyes, bigger than just us.
From the beginning I have tried to be as transparent as possible so everyone knows exactly what I know. I have to admit, I have omitted one thing that not many people know about. From the beginning I was told I wouldn’t get a dime from the sale of the property. The reason in holding this back is because I didn’t want people to think I am fighting only for my job etc. I fought knowing a good chance of what the outcome might eventually be. But, I am not the person to look at small chance and give up. Again, you guys are the one that kept me going during some hard times!!
So what is next??? Well aside from my plan on winning the powerball lottery….
It looks like there was a stipulation that included us renting back from UNT for “1 dollar” for one year beginning on the closing date. When that closing date is, I am not certain. I have briefly skimmed through the contract which I only knew about yesterday so I have some more reading to do. Other than that, I suppose the ball is in UNT’s hands now in what they do with us as tenants.
What I can tell you guys is this. I have thought about this day in and day out over the course of the process and what I would do if it came to this and that is: What will be of NYSH? Will I let it close, move locations etc….
This isn’t the last you will see of New York Sub Hub! I won’t go down that easily. Easy way out is throwing in the towel. I love this business and I love all of you that CHOOSE to visit us.
Ironically my dad always taught me the three most useless words are “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve”. I didn’t want to look back and use any of those words about what I could have done to save the store and I can honestly say I won’t be using any of those words. But more importantly I made it a point to do it the right way. I kept my integrity, I worked hard 6-7 days a week, treated my employees and customers as best as I could and I didn’t step aside for anyone, whether it was the former chairman of the Board of Regents or the President of UNT.
Lastly, I want to shout out personally to my amazing supportive wife, mother, brother and my close friends that kept checking up on me throughout this all!!