Messing With the L.A. Times

          There is a letter to the editor in today’s Los Angeles Times (Shrinking the Times, Feb. 3, 009, p. A14) whose author, Larry Gross, identified as Executive Director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, proposes that “taking over The Times for the benefit of the people at large” – who else? — would be a case of “good use for eminent domain,” being as the Times, beset of late with all sorts of tsuris, like shrinking readership  and declining revenues, has resorted to laying off high-quality reporters and consolidating the various sections of the newspaper into one. Interestingly, for some strange reason, in spite of his display of civic high dudgeon, Mr. Gross does not volunteer to pay the constitutionally required just compensation for such a taking. 

           Thus, this seems like an appropriate occasion to tell our readers (and warn Mr. Gross, if he happens to read this blog) that history has not been kind to folks trying to mess with the Times by using eminent domain. Back in the early 1930s the city of Los Angeles found out the hard way that taking on the Times can be a painful experience. The city decided to build a new City Hall – so far, so good – but for some boneheaded reason it decided to build it on land then occupied by the Los Angeles Times offices and printing plant. The bone of contention turned out to be the issue of whether the Times’ fixtures, including its huge printing presses, and other equipment, were compensable. The city argued that all this stuff was personal property and as such movable and therefore noncompensable in the condemnation action. Bad move. To make a long story short, the California Supreme Court disagreed and held (in City of Los Angeles v. Klinker, 25 P.2d 826 (Cal. 1933)) that the contested equipment that was physically and constructively attached to the Times building constituted fixtures that were compensable along with the building. The city then gazed into its purse and concluded that it lacked the funds to complete this transaction. So it purported to abandon the condemnation expecting to pay only the Times’ litigation expenses as required by statute. Wrong move again.  It turned out that in the meantime, the Times had bought a new site for its replacement building (across the street from the old one), as well as a new set of those huge printing presses to replace the old ones that were permanently installed in the old building. So the Times argued that allowing the city to abandon its condemnation of the old Times building would leave the Times high and dry, with two printing plants, one of which would be useless. So the Times argued that the city was estopped from abandoning this condemnation, and the California Supreme Court agreed. Times-Mirror Corp. v. Superior Court, 44 P.2d 547 (Cal. 1935).

      Now the city had a problem: it couldn’t abandon the condemnation because the court wouldn’t let it, and it couldn’t proceed with it because it didn’t have the money to pay the judgment. The problem was solved when the city prevailed on the State of California to take the property off its hands. The State did and eventually built a new state building on it. The city found another parcel a block away and built the Los Angeles City Hall on it, which still stands there. 

          That was the end of the legal story, but more was to come.  In 1971, the Sylmar Earthquake damaged the “new” state building beyond repair and after manfully hanging in there for a few years, its occupants (including the California Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal) moved out, and the building was demolished, leaving behind a vacant city block that is still there, still unbuilt-on in spite of several efforts to redevelop it. Why? Officially, nobody knows. Ah, but we think we know – it’s the curse of the Los Angeles Times, that’s what it is. 

          So if Larry Gross and his merry men – and women, no sexism, please – want to take a stab at condemning the Los Angeles Times, they better be careful. History teaches that trying to do so can be a problem. So, Mr. Gross, if you think that unlike the Times’ current owner, Sam Zell, you can make money from running the Times, and happen to have the wherewithal to pay Sam the fair market value of the Times facilities as well as the value of its business goodwill (see Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 1263.510(a)), have at it. It should make for a good show. Or a good laugh, as the case may be. 

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