City Officials Destroy Man

In the spring of 1979, the Soviet Army destroyed nine-year-old Ahmad Mesdaq’s family home in Afghanistan. With his parents and infant brother, he fled to the United States—away from coercive governmental abuse in his homeland, straight to the land of opportunity.

In 1994, Ahmad leased a storefront on Fifth Avenue in San Diego, California. Here, he would launch his American Dream, an elegant cigar and coffee lounge called the Gran Havana. Six years later, the small business entrepreneur purchased a building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and J Street, and he renovated the property in April 2002. Stylish and chic, the new Gran Havana Cigar and Coffee Lounge opened its 8,000 square foot corner location in March 2003, three blocks from the Padre’s new baseball stadium.

The thriving Gran Havana cafe in San Diego, California, immediately prior to the City's decision to condemn it for the benefit of another private business.

By 2003, Ahmad had established a thriving neighborhood business in the heart of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.

“I spent over nine years trying to buy the ideal location for my business…. This place is perfect. It’s right near the new ballpark and is a corner building that has a lot of exposure to the street,” he said in a 2004 interview.[1]

Gran Havana soon became a bustling small business and more. The café supported himself, his family, his parents, his brother, and even provided Ahmad with enough revenue to put his sister through school. In every sense of the word, it was a true investment for the future—and that’s why he sunk millions of dollars into the building to develop the perfect atmosphere.

That all changed in April 2004, when the City Council, which acts as the City’s redevelopment agency, voted 8-1 to condemn Ahmad’s property—his livelihood—for that most traditional of American public uses: a Marriott Hotel.

Within a matter of minutes, Ahmad decided to take his fight to the courts of law and public opinion. The idea that his dream could be taken by the City and handed over to another private party was “humiliating and frustrating,”[2] and he would not sit passively by while the City bulldozed everything for which he had worked.

Throughout the next year, Ahmad became one of California’s most celebrated eminent domain fighters—a man who never chose to become an activist. He is an ordinary citizen, who wants nothing more than to keep a business he already owns and so deeply cherishes.

Ahmad’s clash with the City was never about dollars and cents. He waged a political and legal battle that gained national media attention well before the U.S. Supreme Court worsened the situation nationwide when it decided Kelo. v. City of New London.

“Are you for sale? Is your hard work, integrity and achievement for sale?” Mesdaq said in April 2004. “Mine is not for sale. It’s not about greed. Even if you gave me $10 million, I don’t want it.”[3]

Sadly, courts and lawmakers failed to protect his business from the government’s wrecking ball, ordering him to vacate in June 2005. Days later, city-hired construction crews bulldozed the beautiful and elegant Gran Havana to the ground—paving the way for the luxury Marriott.

The government's wrecking ball destroys the Gran Havana, and everything in its path.

In October 2005, a San Diego jury awarded Mesdaq $7.7 million for his corner property.

His response: “The verdict is what it is. But I wish we had never had to come this far. I love the Gaslamp. I love San Diego. I just want to work.”[4]

As of May 2006, it appears that Mesdaq’s business was taken and demolished for nothing—at least nothing more than the parking lot that’s currently occupying the corner of Fifth and J.

Ahmad’s dispute is sadly reflective of controversies nationwide, where thriving small businesses are seized by the government, razed, and handed over to other private parties. His story should serve as a classic reminder that hard work and achievement cannot always justly be replaced with a wad of cash. That’s why the Castle Coalition provides support and resources for home and business owners throughout the country who have chosen not to sell their beloved properties and are resisting forced government condemnations for private development.

On this San Diego corner, tax-hungry city councilmen and a land-hungry wealthy hotel chain teamed up to destroy an honest man’s American Dream.

As he said after he received the verdict, “I hope, someday, I will have the ability to come back to the Gaslamp.”[5] Let’s hope he does.

The land on which the Gran Havana stood is currently being used as a parking lot.

[1] Miguel San Jose, “A battle with city hall: An imminent decision awaits a local eminent domain case,” San Diego Lawyer, November/December 2004.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jonathan Heller, “Council OKs hotel to replace cigar lounge in Gaslamp Quarter,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 1, 2004, at B4.

[4] Greg Moran, “Jury gives man forced from store $7.7 million,” San Diego Union-Tribune, Oct. 29, 2005.

[5] Ibid.