A Mount Vernon property owner has sued Mayor Richard Thomas, Roberta James and the city’s Industrial Development Agency for $15.1 million, claiming that they stymied his attempts to sell his property.
Alan Landauer of White Plains, who owns 3 acres at 1 Bradford Road, said that Thomas and James insisted that a developer build a hotel or commercial complex, for which the land was not zoned, instead of housing. After the project collapsed because of obstructions by the city, he alleges, James asked him for exclusive rights to represent him on selling the property.
In a lawsuit filed on Dec. 18 in federal court in White Plains, Landauer accuses Thomas and James of “stripping him of any economically viable use of his property” and of depriving him of the ability to realize a reasonable return on his investment.
“The Mount Vernon IDA has not been served with any lawsuit,” the mayor’s spokeswoman, Maria Donovan said today.
The “proposal for 1 Bradford Road was a bad deal for Mount Vernon. It did nothing to bring real jobs to Mount Vernon or expand the commercial tax base. The IDA’s obligation is to encourage economic growth that benefits the whole city, not simply sign off on every deal that is presented.”
James said today she could not respond to the allegations because she had not yet seen the lawsuit.
The Bradford Road property is next to the Hutchinson River Parkway at Willson’s Woods Park.
Landauer bought the land and a 52,000-square-foot office-warehouse in 2001. For 15 years he operated Landauer Metropolitan, a medical supplies business. He filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and shut down operations.
The land and building have been deteriorating since then and his LTTR Home Care LLC has been paying $350,000 a year in taxes and interest.
Landauer, 69, has been trying to sell the property to pay off debts and fund his and his wife’s retirements.
Wood Partners of Atlanta agreed to buy the property in 2014, for a 120-unit apartment building. The city council changed the zoning from industrial to residential and the IDA approved a tax abatement plan.
But Wood Partners encountered community opposition and withdrew the project.
Last year, the NRP Group of Cleveland agreed to buy the property, contingent on securing tax abatement approval from the IDA.
NRP’s plans also called for a 120-unit apartment building, but the developer modified the designs to make the building seem less massive and less industrial, to allay some of the concerns of neighbors.
It applied to the IDA for tax abatement, using essentially the same terms that the IDA had granted to Wood Partners.
The IDA was now run by Thomas, the new mayor, and staffed by his appointees. He had named James, who had been his campaign manager and had run his inaugural committee, as the IDA’s business development director at $86,000 a year.
Thomas had already signaled his vision for Bradford Road.
“I recommend to the current developer that this site be transformed into a boutique hotel with a conference center,” he said in his 2017 state of the city address, a week before NRP Group presented plans to the IDA.
Landauer said Thomas told him on May 17 that the IDA would not support NRP’s project unless it included a 75-room hotel or a retail component.
James allegedly called NRP after the state of the city address and left a message identifying herself as “with the city.” When an NRP representative returned the call, James allegedly identified herself as a private broker and asked if NRP would be interested in selling the property to a hotel developer.
James is a registered real estate broker and operates Miss Bees Realty LLC from her home.
The property was not zoned for a hotel or commercial use, Landauer states in the complaint, and in all the years it was on the market no one had expressed interest in developing a hotel on the site.
“I would be delighted to sell it. It’s an albatross around my neck right now,” he told the Westchester County Business Journal in October. “Where he dreamed up a hotel, I don’t know.”
Despite the belief that there was no market demand for a hotel or major retail use, NRP Group added a food truck and picnic area to its plans to satisfy Thomas’ demands.
Landauer’s lawsuit states that NRP made numerous requests to get on the IDA agenda, to get preliminary approval for a tax abatement plan, hold a public hearing and get final approval. Each time it was rebuffed.
Thomas invited Landauer to the IDA’s June meeting. Two other projects got approvals, but the NRP project was not on the agenda. Landauer said he left the meeting puzzled as to why he was invited.
Then Thomas held a press conference after the meeting, in which he unveiled several pending and proposed residential projects, but not Bradford Road.
“The clear message,” Landauer said, “was that Thomas intended to block residential development at the property and that only a hotel or catering project, or some other project, with his and James’ support would gain IDA assistance.”
The lawsuit describes a series of meetings and phone calls, with Landauer or NRP representatives, in which Thomas or James insisted on a hotel.
Landauer said he got a call from two people, who are not named in the lawsuit, to meet. They claimed at the meeting to have developed hotels in the area but had no financial backing, the lawsuit states.
Landauer said he told them he had a contractual obligation to sell the property to NRP Group, “which he intended to honor.”
Finally, in early September, NRP was notified that it would be on that month’s IDA agenda, Landauer said. It was not.
Thomas repeatedly told NRP representatives to “sit down. We will not act on your application,” the lawsuit states.
NRP then terminated its contract with Landauer.
“Not only was the city failing to be a cooperative partner,” NRP official Jonathan Gertman wrote in a Sept. 25 letter to Thomas, “it was actively attempting to derail the project.”
Three weeks later, Landauer said, James called and said she might have a hotel interested in buying the property. She allegedly asked him to “give her an exclusive” on the sale of the property.
He said he refused, “finding the timing and substance of the call distasteful and patently inappropriate.”
Landauer is accusing Thomas and James of retaliation under the First Amendment, for his unwillingness to capitulate to Thomas’ demands and for violating his right not to associate with James and her purported clients.
He also charges them with conspiracy, racketeering, unconstitutional taking of property and conflict of interest as municipal officials. He accuses the IDA of abuse of discretion and of acting in bad faith to undermine the NRP project.
He is asking for more than $5 million in damages on most of the charges, and treble damages on the racketeering charge.
He is demanding that Thomas be removed as IDA chairman and James as an IDA employee.