Stockton officials appeared to admit recently what many Stocktonians long believed: that the city’s drastic 2017 closure of the Miracle Mile’s Empire Theatre complex was a god-awful mistake.
After six years of lawsuits and the demonizing of then-property owner Christopher “Kit” Bennitt, the city gave him $1.6 million in April to drop his cross complaint.
“There was an opportunity to reach an agreement that would allow us all to move forward,” said city spokesperson Connie Cochran. “As a vacant property it doesn’t benefit anyone.”
This is one of those WTF moments when city conduct is completely at odds with its previous actions. Not to mention its repeated authoritative statements over the years that the Empire Theatre complex was such a deadly tinderbox that immediate and draconian action was crucial to avert imminent loss of life.
And draconian it certainly was. Stunned owners of nine ma and pa businesses were given two days to vacate. That hurt some businesses; it destroyed others. Bennitt was deprived of over $30,000 a month rent and painted as an obdurate scofflaw.
So … Dr. Evil gets $1.6 million?
The settlement document includes the predictable no-fault clause: “Nothing in this agreement … shall be construed as an admission by any person … that they violated any laws or engaged in any other wrongful or unlawful conduct.”
Nice try. But wrongful city conduct is exactly how the public will construe this jarring about-face. A city attorney can hide behind attorney-client privilege, but the public can smell a rat.
Court documents suggest city conduct was not only wrongful but underhanded and deceptive.
Of course, there’s always the unknown. A city sometimes settles favorable cases because juries are unpredictable, or because city attorneys are liberal with public money, or because they can. But also, let’s be real, because officials screwed the pooch.
Based on court records, I go with pooch.
The city came out swinging, alleging in its Petition for Nuisance Abatement and Receivership that the Empire buildings at 1825-1831 Pacific Avenue were riddled with “unpermitted construction, unpermitted use, illegal residential occupancy, exposed electrical wiring, … dilapidated interior walls and ceilings, blocked means of egress and fire hazards in the kitchen areas.”
Alleged the petition, “The City has attempted to gain Respondents’ (Bennitt’s) voluntary compliance to rehabilitate the Nuisance Properties for five years, to no avail.”
Consequently, “A receivership (seizing the property from Bennitt, after wholesale eviction of all business tenants, and giving it to someone else to manage) is, therefore, critical to avoid disastrous consequences of injury to persons and property.”
Using an emergency provision in the law, the city closed down Empresso Coffeehouse, Casa Flores Mexican Restaurant, Centrale Kitchen & Bar, Gusty’s Wings, Serendipity Salon, The Mile Restaurant & Bar, Balance Physical Therapy & Pilates, Carter Financial Solutions, and Catalyst Real Estate.
Kathleen Smith Wong, a physical therapist who ran Balance Physical Therapy & Pilates, found herself abruptly out on the street. Smith Wong was unable to locate a suitable space for a year.
“I still had bills to pay,” she said. “My business loans, I still had to pay those. I lost clients. Financially, I lost a lot of money.”
For his part, Bennitt disputed these charges from the get-go.
“The city has never demonstrated that the building or that I was in noncompliance with fire and life safety,” he told me in 2017, “and I don’t believe that to be the case.”
The city demanded Bennitt hire design professionals to draft a fix-it plan. He did, to the tune of almost $100,000. Picky officials and the design team haggled for months while the Empire stood vacant and Bennitt bled money. Building officials finally approved a plan to repair the nine business suites one at a time. The city put it in writing.
Bennitt sent a contractor to pick up the permits. But in a Kafkaesque twist, city officials told the contractor he couldn’t have the permits; never mind the agreement; the permits were placed on “litigation hold.”
The same day city building officials green-lighted the plan, the City Attorney’s Office filed a petition for receivership in Superior Court — without informing city building officials or Bennitt.
Having blocked Bennitt’s repair permits, the city then argued in court that receivership was necessary because Bennitt wasn’t getting repairs done!
A judge laughed that one out of court.
Soon a very different picture emerged as Bennitt’s attorney, Anthony Vignolo, began deposing witnesses and obtaining documents in the discovery process.
“The discovery process flushed out a significant amount of evidence that was incredibly damaging to the City and several of its representatives,” Bennitt said in a statement.
One such revelation involved city misuse of emergency powers. In a real emergency, a city need not notify an owner of abatement; if it’s not an emergency, they must. A forewarned owner can then seek injunctive relief to stop the city plan.
But the city had stated, as you read above, that it sought (Bennitt’s) “voluntary compliance to rehabilitate the Nuisance Properties for five years, to no avail.”
If the building were such a short-fused time bomb, Vignolo reasonably asked, why did officials sit on their hands for five years?
The city’s attorney argued speciously that although the city had compiled thousands of pages of documents after repeated inspections, officials didn’t grasp the dire nature of the emergency until two days before the evictions.
It was a lie. Discovery unearthed a bombshell document dated May 11, 2017, a draft Notice of Violations and Order to Vacate showing the city was ready to claim a life-or-death emergency a month earlier.
The Empire’s unsafe conditions, the document read, “pose such an immediate threat to the life, limb, health, safety, and welfare of
the public at large and the occupants of this property as to constitute an emergency. Therefore, notice is hereby given that this property must be vacated by 5:00 PM ON MAY 16, 2017.”
This debunked the city’s flimsy contention that officials grasped the life-threatening nature of the Empire’s safety problems only two days before the city dropped the hammer. It also put the lie to the Empire’s alleged imminent threat to the public. In a true emergency, officials don’t sit around debating for a month.
Further proof was provided by city building official Lydia Clary who testified in deposition that Bennitt was complying with city demands and deserved to be given the repair permit.
CLARY: I had no knowledge of receivership. … No knowledge. No idea why.
VIGNOLO: But you were the point person. How does that even happen?
CLARY: I was ready to issue the permit. I received notification there was a litigation hold on it and I was not to issue the permit.
VIGNOLO: Who gave you that notification?
CLARY: I can’t disclose that.
None of this absolves Bennitt. Court docs show the Empire had real issues with fire safety, construction without permits, and other violations. But the docs also show that at one point the city cudgeled Bennitt into compliance.
Yet the repair agreement the city signed did not satisfy a cadre of senior city officials—previous City Attorney staffers, outside counsel, higher-ups in the City Manager’s Office, most retired now—who hatched a secret plan to seize the Empire complex by ginning up a false emergency so Bennitt could not block their scheme with an injunction.
That’s where the city crossed the line.
Bennitt’s cross complaint goes further. It alleges that the drive to appoint a receiver was part of a scheme to get the Empire property into the hands of a preferred buyer. The buyer is not named. But the cross complaint argues the city used code enforcement as a pretext to seize private property in the past and cites enough examples that no judge would dismiss the accusation out of hand.
That is unclear. What is clear is that ham-fisted city officials drove a stake into the heart of arguably Stockton’s best redevelopment project for reasons so dubious that a subsequent City Attorney threw $1.2 million at Bennitt to avoid a worse outcome.
And not just at Bennitt. Many of the evicted ma and pa business owners sued the city, too. They also won damages.
· Empresso: $150,000.
· Gusty’s Wings $65,000.
· Catalyst Real Estate Professionals: $52,500.
· Casa Flores : $30,000.
There is simply no way to spin this, but Cochran, the city spokesperson, gave it the old college try.
“It’s our understanding that the new owner has an interest in reactivating the space,” she said. “This is an opportunity to move forward and revitalize that portion of the Miracle Mile.”
How much of an opportunity? In 2018, squatters broke into the boarded-up theater, causing a 2-alarm fire. In 2021 a five-alarm squatter fire left only three walls standing amid charred debris. The lively hive of commerce Bennitt created resembles bombed-out Ukrainian rubble, a monument to Stockton city government at its worst.
Michael Fitzgerald is an investigative news columnist for Stocktonia. His column usually runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. email: email@example.com