The Downside of Upscale

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First, the youth boxing club was in the Barragan family’s backyard. Next, it was in a two-car garage. And finally, and somewhat ironically, the Barragans (junior and senior) settled it in a converted gun store in National City, Calif., attracting kids from disadvantaged communities to fight in the ring instead of the streets. [View boxing center podcast.]

Today, the Community Youth Athletic Center (CYAC) is a state-of-the-art gym and educational facility serving up to 35 youths a day – and the administrators fear that it’s going to get bulldozed.

It’s not unusual for youth programs to lose their spaces because of neighborhood gentrification, but the process usually involves a landlord evicting a tenant in favor of more upscale businesses. The CYAC faces a threat more rare: the possibility that the local government might use eminent domain to remove the club on behalf of a high-end developer.

The battle has its roots in a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision: In 2005, the court ruled in Kelo v. New London that local governments can use eminent domain to force the sale of private property to make room for private economic development believed to benefit the public.

That same year, National City officials approved a luxury condo project to be built on land that includes the gym and, club supporters say, threatened to use eminent domain to seize the property. National City Mayor Ron Morrison (I) denies the threat. But the city renewed a “blight” designation that could allow hundreds of properties, including the CYAC, to be subject to eminent domain takeovers.

The media attention caught the eye of the Institute for Justice, a Washington-area libertarian public interest law firm whose specialties include private property rights. It took on CYAC’s case pro bono, helping the club file a lawsuit claiming that the city’s eminent domain process violates the U.S. and California constitutions, as well as state law.

The mayor said the development will take place around CYAC, but refused to put in writing that eminent domain won’t be used for the club.

Victor Núñez, vice president of CYAC and deputy district attorney in San Diego County (which includes National City), said the 3,709-square-foot gym was purchased in 2002 for about $270,000 with private donations, and remodeled with donations of supplies and labor. “The reason I got involved is that I would rather see the kids go through the program and succeed than come through the criminal justice system,” Núñez said.

Among National City’s 54,200 residents, 26 percent of the families with children are below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The city is nearly 60 percent Hispanic and 35 percent white; the other largest ethnic groups are Asian and Filipino, according to Census figures.

The club is run by Carlos Barragan Jr., the director, and Carlos Barragan Sr., the athletic director, with a volunteer staff of seven. The gym’s $215,000 annual budget is funded by private and public donations and grants, including city money, according to Barragan Jr.

Kids 8 to 18 who want to join the club must present a report card and maintain good grades. They train every day after school from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. and compete on the weekends. The center also provides tutoring, mentoring and a computer for youths to use. The club gets youth referrals from the probation department and schools, among other places.

Being located in an up-and-coming area often puts youth programs in peril of losing their space. Here’s one solution: In 2007, the Pan-Educational Institute, an arts program for at-risk youth located in a revitalizing area of Kansas City, Mo., got $542,000 in financing from the Greater Kansas City Local Initiatives Support Corp. to help buy its building to prevent it from being taken over by developers.

In National City, the developer offered to buy the gym for $665,000, which CYAC declined; Núñez said the facility is worth more than $1 million. He said CYAC asked the developer to build the gym into the new project, but was rebuffed. Local media have reported that the developer, Jim Beauchamp, said he’ll build around the gym, but Núñez said CYAC has received nothing to that effect in writing.

Last month, a California Superior Court judge dismissed the club’s lawsuit on a technicality involving a legal notice date that was off by one day, said Jeff Rowes, one of two institute staff attorneys representing the club. Rowes is “very confident” that the California Court of Appeals will overturn the dismissal. Said the mayor, “The lawsuit’s over.”

The Barragans will reapply for CYAC’s allocation of city funds in a few weeks. The mayor said the city has “plenty of other youth groups” who are just as deserving and serve more kids.

Contact: Community Youth Athletic Center (619) 474-CYAC (2922),; Institute for Justice (703) 682-9320,