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Locks changed, 24-hour guard, moving van: an eviction on Dean Street for "a school" (+ 27-story tower, 330 market-rate rentals)

Photo May 11, by AYR
The last occupied home in the Atlantic Yards footprint is empty, its owner having lost a cat-and-mouse game with the state, one that culminated Monday with a moving crew loading the contents of 493 Dean Street, just east of Sixth Avenue and opposite the Barclays Center, into a truck to be taken to storage.

In the previous weeks, a simmering dispute over the value of that property--the six-bedroom, four-bath, four-story house in the center of the photo, for 60 years owned by the family of Jerry Campbell--led to a particularly ugly process.

After losing title to the house through eminent domain to Empire State Development (ESD), the state agency overseeing/promoting the project, Campbell unsuccessfully sought a swap for a house of comparable value, rather than accept the distinctly lowball offer from the state, well below the value one broker estimated eight years ago.

After that initial payment--using funds from Greenland Forest City Partners, the new joint venture--the condemnee must go through a costly, potentially protracted process to set the ultimate value of the house, as per state law.

Eminent domain, of course, is supposed to be subject to "just compensation." The process in New York advantages condemnors. Forest City Ratner was seemingly generous with many earlier condemnees, though that was partly because the company was reimbursed with $100 million of taxpayer funds. This time Forest City and the state, as Campbell put it, were bullies, making no attempt at fair compensation.

Changing the locks

After staying through a court-ordered extension, Campbell sought more time, writing to lawyers for the state, "I set out the various obstacles I had encountered and that were ultimately delaying my moving out," Campbell recounted, such as the "need to schedule and coordinate appraisals for the eminent domain valuation, insufficient funds for even a deposit once my mortgage now recorded as a lien had been cleared, etc."

"It came to a head when I received a curt letter from [ESD attorney] Charles Webb telling me amongst other things he would have me removed by a sheriff. I responded and also notified [his firm] Berger & Webb of my intention to file for a TRO.. As they made plain they were not altering their offer, I sought a 90-day extension to the vacate date to allow conclusion of the trial whereupon I'd have the means to relocate."

When Campbell was out of the house, ESD got the locks changed on the house, posted a 24-hour guard, and had the house's contents packed.

The state-ordered eviction and moving van came Monday.

Watching the process were attorney Adam Brodsky, of Berger & Webb, the ESD's condemnation counsel, and Gary Curry of the Cornerstone Group, the under-the-radar company that specializes in relocating those threatened with or subject to eminent domain. (See photo below left.)

493 Dean interior, via Campbell 
Also visiting were several court officials along with state Supreme Court Justice Wayne Saitta, the judge whose job it is to set the value, which includes the condition of the interior.

In February, the judge told Campbell he couldn't order a swap, though he could encourage discussions: "If you don't agree with the amount of money, we'll have a trial."

Condemned for a school?

When I inquired last week, ESD told me: "Mr. Campbell's residence was one of three properties that were condemned to build a school. We sympathize with Mr. Campbell and we will continue to work with him to determine the fair, market value of his property."

That's disingenuous, since the property was condemned not merely to build a school, but a 27-story tower, known as Building 15, with some 336 market-rate rentals

When it emerged in April 2014 that Forest City would include space for a promised Atlantic Yards school site in Building 15 (below the railyard, between Dean and Pacific streets), rather than the long-assumed Building 5 (over the railyard), I pointed out that it would not only save the developer money, it would paper over two public relations problems.

Photo May 4 by Tracy Collins; was truck a feint?
By placing a much-needed school--the build-out to be funded by the city--in the residential tower between Dean and Pacific streets east of Sixth Avenue, that could moderate concern over the coming dramatic difference in scale: a 27-story tower replacing two- and four-story row houses, standing next to four-story apartment buildings.

Also, the installation of a school--a clear public use--might mitigate the offensiveness of using eminent domain to dislodge owners and tenants for a luxury apartment building.

And that was clearly the strategy.

"Working with" the condemnee?

Campbell outside court in February
I asked Campbell to comment on the ESD's statement. He wrote:
While Robin Stout, Esq, counsel for ESD, couldn't have been more genial, I am at a complete loss as to how his organization could "continue to work..." on something that never has begun. In the bluntest of terms, ESD by way of their condemnation counsel, Berger & Webb comported themselves as a bully and attempted to strong-arm the acceptance of a valuation that at best represents one-half the current value of our home. ESD made an undertaking in court to discuss my proposal of a house exchange but once we got in the hallway outside of court, my proposal was promptly rejected. There was no discussion of fair market value. ESD simply restated their offer made prior to an appraisal.
The suggestion that ESD, who locked us out of our home knowing we have a three year old child and assigned a security guard to prevent us from obtaining needed personal effects, "sympathize" with us, is simply not supported by the facts. Actually, it's reminiscent of what Ashley Cotton, Forest City Ratner’s vice president for external affairs, said [link] when it was announced that we had to leave: “We know our neighbors, we’re sympathetic to whatever experience they’re having". Do note, in all the years we have lived here we have never met the lady.
At right, attorney Adam Brodsky of Berger & Webb
At left, Gary Curry of Cornerstone Group
Cornerstone did offer relocation assistance, Campbell said, but it was not in good faith, with no account for relocation in the same neighborhood.

I asked where he went. "Temporary housing," he responded. "We still do not have our personal effects that ESD took to a storage facility. As you will appreciate, finding an unfurnished house that can accommodate furniture from a four-storey house, is not something that can be done overnight. At this stage, our focus is on recovering from what has been a harrowing experience."

Campbell for years rented out part of the house building to tenants, but, after Atlantic Yards construction began, resorted to shorter-term rentals. Below is a file he submitted to the court, containing photos of the interior, the garden, his extended family, and his grandfather Oliver Stewart, who bought the house.

No negotiation

Campbell said there was no negotiation:
Boxes in  window last week
Despite the Empire State Development's public declaration that they would relocate "displaced residents in the project neighborhood or similar or better area,"our singular request to replace our home with a comparable house in the neighborhood, was summarily dismissed. There was no negotiation. What ESD's condemnation counsel, Charles Webb III offered is "some money". That money being an advance payment that could not purchase a two-bedroom apartment on the street where we live far less a six-bedroom, four bathroom 3000 sq ft townhouse such as ours.
The working assumption, based on a remark made by Adam Brodsky, another lawyer acting for ESD: " I'm not sure if you realize but the advance payment is yours to spend..." appears to be, we are so dim-witted that we would opt for a spending spree rather than somewhere to live. To this end, ESD waged a campaign of harassment and intimidation for us to accept what is a ten year old valuation of our beloved home. Levying a $6500 occupancy fee to live in our own home long before an offer of payment, attempting to change utility bills in the name of their management company, issuing threats to send the sheriff in to remove us from our home amongst other things.

Windows left open May 8
Ultimately, sending a sheriff in is precisely what ESD did. In the course of discussions to extend the vacate date, they issued a five-day eviction letter, subsequently changed the locks to our front door and while our application for an injunction was being heard in court, packed and put the contents of our home in storage. Breathtaking callousness aside, the approach adopted by ESD defies logic. They refused to offer an amount sufficient to relocate and refused to allow us to stay in our home till the conclusion of a valuation hearing whereupon we would have the means to relocate. Yet, expected us to be enthusiastic about moving out of our home of sixty years.
It also stands in stark contrast to every displaced resident of Phase 1 of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project who was paid twice the value of their home and in most cases owned their apartments for little more than six months prior to the announcement of the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project. Even a self-described speculator, Menachem Friedfertig [see coverage] was paid $3M in 2007 for nothing more than plans to build a four-storey townhouse such as ours. Notably, ESD saw fit to pay our next door neighbour whose house is the same square footage and same brick frame structure (albeit covered with stucco facade) 60% more than we were offered in addition to two years worth of rental payments. The fact that this extraordinary approach has been reserved for my family, the only African Americans in the so called footprint of Phase II has not been lost on us.
Whatever the reasons, I suspect Campbell's push for a swap--distinctly unwelcomed by lawyers for the state--also contributed to the contentious relationship.

At a hearing in February, a state lawyer said "Mr. Campbell doesn't even live at the property," indicating it had been listed on rental web sites. Campbell, representing himself in court, said he did live there.

The valuation conundrum

Valuation is an imperfect process, but, as shown in some other cases, condemnees should not only get fair value, but also get a premium for leaving on schedule of the condemnor, rather than at the time of their choosing.

Of course, if condemnation judges valued property not merely at the current zoning value but the value of the future buildable development--remember, the state must override zoning to allow the new 27-story tower--the 493 Dean property and its neighbors would be far more valuable.

The moving truck, on the sidewalk, in a No Standing zone
Of the 19 houses suggested to Campbell as comparable by the state's relocation consultants, 13 were in Bedford-Stuyvesant and four in Crown Heights, with the sale prices--based on my look at court documents--averaging $1.66 million. Houses in Prospect Heights cost far more.

A letter from Berger & Webb in the court file set out a conundrum: "Whenever feasible, replacement housing alternatives will be provided in the project neighborhood. However, to the extent market forces fail to provide affordable alternatives in the Project neighborhood, ESD will provide listings of alternatives in other similar or better areas."

As I wrote, it was odd that "market forces" were blamed for failing to provide a condemnee with comparable property. First, the market is being bypassed via eminent domain and the state's override of zoning, which allow Greenland Forest City to build a tower far larger than Campbell or any other property owner could do on their own.

Secondly, shouldn't "market forces"--assuming the house is valued comparably with others in the neighborhood--yield a payment sufficient to purchase a similar house?
The three houses & building in back will be demolished

Questions of timing

The state seemed the overstate the need for speed. As I wrote 2/2/15, in an affirmation filed with the court, ESD attorney Webb wrote that it was necessary to get vacant possession of properties including Campbell's house imminently.

Given the requirements for planning by the School Construction Authority, Webb wrote, the "school could open for the 2018 school year only if ESD gains control of the site by February 2015."

Either that wasn't true, or the deadline has been missed.

"All those buildings are vacated," ESD official Sam Filler said during the May 12 Atlantic Yards Community Update meeting, describing the process--seemingly undisturbed--to build the school. The next step would be for the state to hand possession over to Forest City, he said, and "they have their schedule for demolition."

The plans for the buildout


  1. There should be some kind of law that bars the forceful removal of people from their homes, especially when they have been living in that home for most of their life!


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