Property rights magically disappear in Wheaton

In the past decade much of magic retail sales has shifted online, leaving it relatively harder for bricks and mortar magic stores to stay afloat. Unless a store is in a tourist area, has a large Web presence, or is attached to a larger costume or theatrical outlet, running a profitable store that caters primarily to magicians is a tough business.

This is an unfortunate decline, as magic shops have played an important role in the development of the art. They are the spots where magicians go to hang out, where young dabblers get to know seasoned professionals and learn from them. For me, the shop that provided this experience was Danny’s Trix and Kix in Spring, TX. After a few months of merely purchasing tricks there, I eventually met up with some of the local pros who frequented the place. Their guidance was instrumental in my progression as a performer. Thousands of magicians around the country could tell similar stories.

Barry’s Magic Shop in Wheaton, MD, is the last of its kind remaining in the DC area. It’s been in business for thirty-one years, surviving the rise of e-commerce and competition from a large competitor in Baltimore. That takes a magic of its own kind. But whatever magic Barry’s possesses, it’s no match for county officials wielding the power of eminent domain. Montgomery County forcibly acquired title the building where Barry’s is housed a few months ago and is planning to evict Barry Taylor and tear the place down.

I had not been to Barry’s before because magic has been a smaller part of my life since moving to DC. But after reading on a local magicians’ list serve that Barry’s was being evicted and finding the county’s reasons for the taking highly dubious, I decided pay a visit with my camera this weekend and check the place out. Sadly, this case appears to be another of the type we’ve seen so much of in recent years: abuse of eminent domain to drive out an existing small business to make way for developers.

Barry’s is located on Georgia Ave. in one of the many strip malls that line the street north of the Beltway. The area is eclectic if not always charming. Barry’s neighbor on one side is an adult video store; bars and check cashing places abound. In this environment, Barry’s is a unique, family-friendly treasure the county ought to care about.

Upon entering the store, once can’t help but be struck by the history that emanates from the place. Magic memorabilia hanging from the walls and displayed in glass cases, stacks and stacks of books and videos for sale, and of course the standard demonstration counter where the staff shows off old standards and the latest tricks to customers looking for something new. It’s a well-stocked shop, and right away I regret not coming there sooner.

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Everyone in the store is friendly, but the first greeting comes from Frankie, the store border collie. Frankie’s a bit of a star. When the postman arrives, he (or she, I didn’t check) runs up excitedly as the man drops off a biscuit with the mail. He does tricks, too, showing off his impressive goal keeping skills with a couple of stuffed balls. Frankie doesn’t perform for the camera, though. Here’s a shot of him declining to play, but you could more poetically interpret this as the sadness he expresses at his place of work being taken away. Frankie could be the poster dog for the consequences of eminent domain abuse.

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I spend the next hour or so hanging out in the store, learning about the case as one of the owners, Susie Kang, asks customers to sign a petition expressing support for the store while cheering everyone up with gallows humor. In the meantime, normal store operations continue. At the counter, an adolescent kid buys a trick from the salesman. Dad is respectfully asked to retreat to the corner while the dealer explains the workings to the son, who will want to fool Dad with it later. Nostalgia sweeps in… I remember trips to the magic store like that!

If county officials have their way, none of this will last and an alley will take the place of these human interactions. By now, I hope, I have painted a sympathetic picture of Barry’s Magic Shop and given a good idea of the feel of what will be lost. It is necessary to turn next to the county’s reasons for destroying it. I am going to elaborate on this in some detail, as no one in the press has covered it well. Yet in doing so there is some risk in losing sight of the true issue at hand, of conceding the propriety of the county’s actions just in having the argument. The real story is that simply because a few county planners have decided that the land could be better used to attract developers than as a magic store, the man who owns the building has had his property forcibly taken from him and a small business that has thrived for decades is being evicted years before its lease is up. The rest is just details.

With that in mind, let’s go into those details. Barry’s is located at 11234 Georgia Ave. in one of the many strip malls that line the street. This is a view from the median:

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Behind the store is a large shopping area with significantly more parking. This is a view of Barry’s from the rear parking lot:

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Barry’s is the store in the center offset from the others. It has exclusive access to the handful of parking spaces in front of it. Notice the small alley located between Barry’s and the store on the right. Expanding this alley is the stated reason for the county’s takeover and eviction:

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Though there are multiple exits from the shopping center, pedestrians occasionally use this alley as a convenient shortcut onto Georgia Avenue. The county claims that this alley is inadequate to the purpose. When I visited the store, I was told that not many pedestrians use the alley. Though there’s obviously an incentive for the owners to understate its use, this is consistent with my own observations — with the exception of Barry’s customers, I didn’t notice a single person walk through it while I was outside taking pictures.

To the county’s credit, the alley does leave something to be desired as a walkway. The small stairway on the left (see above) partially blocks access and this rail and ledge require some slight maneuvering to get through:

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It does not appear that turning this alley into a more functional walkway without tearing down Barry’s would be difficult. Barry’s would surely consent to removing the small rear stairway as an alternative to closing down entirely. And the exit could be made more navigable by removing the last section of the rail and installing stairs or a ramp. This might require removing a parking space, but this is surely preferable to knocking down a long-standing business.

Regrettably, Montgomery County is not interested in finding ways to improve the alley that would leave the building in place. Instead, officials threatened the building’s owner, George Chaconas, that they would sieze the property using eminent domain and eventually took him to court. Chaconas concluded that he had no choice but to give in and agreed to a sale. The Examiner reports Chaconas’ feeling that this was not at all a consensual transfer:

The county threatened to condemn the building and, its owner George Chaconas said, finally sued last year. Chaconas said he settled out of court with the county agreeing to pay $987,000 for the building. He told The Examiner that he felt strong-armed into the deal.

“I didn’t sell it to the county,” Chaconas said. “They took it.”

County officials did not return phone calls from The Examiner requesting a response. I also tried calling for information and, unsurprisingly, was not given a reply either.

With the building now in the county’s hands, there is nothing stopping officials from evicting Barry and tearing the place down. Barry sums up the senselessness of this situation well, noting that “It’s going to cost over $2 million, and it’s still going to be an alleyway.” The tab for that $2 million expenditure will be picked up by taxpayers.

If this whole exchange sounds a bit fishy, it’s because this fight is about a lot more than an alleyway. County officials and big developers have been planning for years to dramatically change the face of the area with what is known as the Wheaton Redevelopment Project. Originally, planners were considering putting a Mall of America scale shopping center in the area. Fortunately that monstrosity got nixed. Developers and residents are currently fighting over proposals to raise height limitations on buildings to bring in larger stores, office buildings, and residences. This would be good for developers, obviously, and may be a good idea, but many residents fear losing Wheaton’s mix of independent businesses and becoming more like the smoothly corporate Silver Spring, which is just a few miles away and whose own redevelopment is much further along.

A fluff piece recently published in the Maryland Gazette describes the Redevelopment Project in rosy terms, complete with a big smiling photo of project director Joseph Davis. It’s a PR-friendly article that makes the project look like a model collaboration among county officials, developers, and existing business owners:

But it’s taken a lot of more than dollars and cents and bricks and mortar to make all this redevelopment happen. It’s taken a lot of listening.

Bozzuto officials have listened to suggestions from residents, small-business owners and others when creating plans, keeping in mind Wheaton’s need for more residential and office space, said Artie Harris, a vice president of the development company. ‘‘You don’t want to be a cookie-cutter community,” he said.

Local business officials and residents must be involved in the process or the projects might not meet their needs, said Marian Fryer, a Wheaton small-business owner who serves on several advisory committees. Besides more office and residential space, Wheaton needs to ensure that existing small businesses are not forced to move — as some did from downtown Silver Spring — and there is proper access to key sites such as the Westfield mall, she said.

That’s a lovely thought, but it’s completely out of touch with reality. That article was published June 9, well after the county was in court to seize George Chaconas’ land.

Joseph Davis finally spoke to the press about the issue in a Washington Times article published yesterday. There he explained that the alley was indeed being expanded for the sake of redevelopment:

On May 4, Montgomery County acquired the property that is home to Barry’s Magic Shop on Georgia Avenue. The building will be demolished to create pedestrian and handicapped access between the shops and parking lots on Georgia Avenue and the shops and lots on Triangle Lane, west of Georgia Avenue, said Joseph R. Davis, director of the Wheaton Redevelopment Program, which aims to create new retail, residential and office development in downtown Wheaton…

Mr. Davis said the shop’s location is the best place for a well-designed, well-lit walkway because it is mid-block between the two plazas.

Also the store, unlike the two shopping plazas it is sandwiched between, is a free-standing building.

“There are over 40 businesses on this block that would directly benefit from the demolition of this building,” Mr. Davis said, citing the improved access to downtown businesses the walkway is meant to create.

Let’s take a closer look at this claim. Here’s a satellite map of the shopping center with Barry’s marked with the red spot. That’s Georgia Avenue running vertically on the right:

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As Davis notes, the building is roughly in the middle of the block. He says that this is a compelling reason to knock it down. But while it might be nice to have a walkway there, it’s far from essential. For one thing, there is no intersection across the street from which pedestrians will be coming. I had to scramble across traffic to the median in order to take a picture of the front facade; most pedestrians would be coming from the intersections north and south of the shopping center, both of which already have entrances. Putting a big entrance where Barry’s sits just isn’t necessary.

Secondly, tearing down Barry’s to put in an alley is going to do nothing for redevelopment. The entrance will still just be an alley wedged between buildings in an old strip mall. Turning the area into the kind of place that the people with the Wheaton Redevelopment Project envision is going to require doing a lot of rebuilding. And with rebuilding comes flexibility. A similar entrance could be obtained by getting land from a willing buyer somewhere else on the strip with minimal impact on plans for the shopping center.

All of this makes the statement from the neighboring adult video store manager, quoted in the Times piece, not just appallingly indifferent but also extremely short-sighted:

A manager of the Cadmus II Video & Newsstand next door, said the store sells adult material and that he is not concerned with Mr. Taylor’s situation.

“I could care less about what’s happening to him; he ain’t got nothing to do with us,” said Earl, who declined to give his last name.

I’ve got news for Earl: when the area redevelopment begins in earnest, the friendly neighborhood planners aren’t going to be happy with a porn store flanking the shopping center entrance. If they’re willing to use eminent domain to replace a magic shop with an alley, I doubt they’ll think twice about knocking down an adult video store to put in some kind of upscale retail. I predict the eminent domain takings in Wheaton have just begun.

And this, really, is the major flaw in the Times article. Reading it one may easily be persuaded that putting in a walkway is the best use of the land, momentarily feel sad that the magic store is closing, and chalk it up to the costs of progress. It never mentions that the land was seized against the owner’s will through eminent domain. Sadness is inappropriate. This is a story that should make people angry. Angry that George Chaconas had his land taken from him. Angry that Barry Taylor and Suzie Kang are being evicted years before their lease is up. Angry that this is all being done with taxpayers’ money to subsidize the developers who will eventually move into the area, just because some guy named Joseph Davis thinks that’s the way things ought to be.

If creating a big walkway running perpendicular to a street with no corresponding intersection is truly the best use of the land where Barry’s sits, there is a simple way to make that happen: let the developers who will benefit buy up the land fairly and build it themselves. If there’s development potential here and property values go up, Barry’s might indeed have to move. That’s life. That’s the magic business. But at least that would be voluntary and the owners would have time to find a suitable new location.

With title to the land already transferred to Montgomery County, there may not be much left one can do for Barry’s. But the least one can do is write county officials and give this eminent domain abuse as much publicity as possible. If you have a weblog, especially if you’re in the DC area, please help spread the word.

Barry and Susie have also published a letter on their web site asking for support and listing contact information of the relevant government officials. I encourage you to read it. If you’re willing to voice your opinion on this matter, copy the email addresses there or click on this hyperlink to get them all at once. Let them know what you think, preferably without profanity, tempting as its use may be. Send a copy to Barry’s, too, so they can keep track of the responses.

Finally, if you have any additional information about this case or other eminent domain takings in connection with the Wheaton Redevelopment Project, please let me know by emailing me at jacobgrier – at – gmail.com. I suspect there is much more to this story that has yet to be reported.

[Update: Thanks to everyone who has helped publicize this situation so far:

The Pacific Legal Foundation
David Barzelay
DC Blogs
To The People
Mike Mott
Jeff Woodhead
Radley Balko
DC Transplant
Chad Wilcox

Your posts are appreciated. Thanks to those writing the government officials, too.]

Comments

  1. Chad says:

    I would like to add, as someone who was present while Jacob researched this story, that if you don’t fully appreciate the travesty that is occurring here you really must travel to Barry’s Magic Shop and observe firsthand. The number of people who dropped in during the hour we were there to express their dismay at the loss of this community icon was astounding. This is truly a one-of-a-kind establishment with owners who have put their entire lives into its continued success, and it does not deserve such a fate.

    Moreover, Jacob has been very professional in reporting only the facts that could be definitively corroborated or that were previously reported by other sources. What’s missing is a back story that, if even half of it is true, would turn your stomach as you discovered what your community leaders have done to a Greek immigrant landowner, not to mention what they’ve tried to do to in order to keep this story out of the media.

    I sincerely hope those of you who read this post will do everything in your power to spread the word, and to make this eminent domain abuse as difficult to implement as possible.

  2. Erika says:

    Unfortunately this is very common especially since the Kelo decision last year. Skyland Mall in Anacostia is another example–just one mind you, of propety being seized for redevelopment. I live about 20 seconds away from the Magic Shop so I know first hand what we are losing.

  3. Erika says:

    PS — that was a great, very well researched piece Jacob

  4. Barzelay says:

    I did my part to spread the word.

  5. Barzelay says:
  6. na says:

    injustice … this is so wrong

  7. Barzelay says:

    okay, I was apparently very stupid the day I posted those comments. The correct link should be to DCBlogs.

  8. James Randi says:

    Though I don’t think I’ve ever been to Barry’s Magic Shop, I’ve visited dozens of such emporia all over the world. The article tells it as it is: those shops, the clerks who demonstrated the tricks they were selling, and the inspiration provided by the posters on the wall of magic’s “greats,” will be missed — and a potential generation of novices may never emerge because they had no place to meet the pros. But there will be a wider alley in the neighborhood — leading to nowhere…

Trackbacks

  1. Property Rights Magically Disappear in Wheaton

    Eternal Recurrence has a touching post about the condemnation of a magic shop in Wheaton, Maryland, by Montgomery County officials who are going to replace it with a new development. It’s worth reading the whole

  2. [...] The journalistic acccount of how a one-man development plan is destroying a livelihood is ably told by Jacob Grier at Eternal Recurrence. Jacob also reports the response he receives from his inquiry to the county executive. Keep in mind as you read that what’s left out, because of difficulty in corroborating with multiple sources, is a back story of political antagonism and backroom dealing that’s incredibly disturbing when considering what the consequences are for the affected individuals. [...]

  3. [...] Magically Disappear in Wheaton Posted on June 25, 2006 by PLF Eternal Recurrence has a touching post about the condemnation of a magic shop in Wheaton, Maryland, by Montgomery County officials who are [...]

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