why would bully developer sucker punch a fact-based blogger about Chelsea rowhouse renovation?

no punches thrown in a while; is the bully tired? or satisfied?
I saw this kerfluffle reported on Curbed way back in August, but I was on vacation in California then and the story looked to be still developing. Since then it has developed a bit, and seems to have reached a steady state, and I have been remiss in not dealing with it before. Not because it is one of those glam Manhattan real estate stories that involves psychics, butler, Courtney Love and French (political) royalty, but because it involves a blogger who has made very specific factual assertions that a development violates various very specific rules (with pictures!) who has been threatened with legal action as a result.

Scary stuff for a blogger like Manhattan Loft Guy, who has (so far) relied on the fact that I try to be very fact-based to keep me out of trouble. Much like seeing a portrait of Rudy Ghoul-iani just before Halloween, this scares the crap out of me. In the spirit of embrace your fears!, let’s explore what is at stake.

where is the lawsuit claiming the blogger is wrong?
Unlike that blogger was, Manhattan Loft Guy is not anonymous. So the first step in the legal process was for The Developer to take the blogger’s web hosting company to court to force it to identify the Anon, as reported in the New York Post on July 18, as explicit prelude to the second step (a lawsuit for defamation). By then, the Post had already identified the Anonymous Architect and noted in the article that The Developer in fact intended to sue the Anonymous Architect, noting that an agent claimed that the Anonymous Architect’s blogging caused a customer to back away from the development, that the Buildings Department was prompted to investigate, and that

It was a lot of headache and hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain for a developer who said the anonymous claims were dead wrong and misinformed.

Not being anonymous, Manhattan Loft Guy finds that piece only mildly interesting, from a legal perspective. But being a fact-based blogger, I found the link of “hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain” and a blogger being said to be “dead wrong and misinformed” rather disturbing. I wonder why I have not seen anywhere a specific instance in which the Anonymous Architect is wrong….

is it over or just on hiatus?
The Developer succeeded in getting at least one web hosting company to take down the Anonymous Architect’s blog, but the Anonymous Architect has found another. The original post was on March 18, 436 West 20th Street Rises Above the Law; the legal stuff followed, then the second post was on August 12, Chelsea Mansion: The Art of Fiction; as of the most recent post (October 7, The Seamy Side of 436 West 20th Street) The Developer has not been heard from again, despite his lawyer’s public claim as of August 30 that he “is prepared to vigorously preserve and protect his stellar reputation” by filing suit against the Anonymous Architect.

Indeed, the New York Post article about the dispute notes that The Developer is “known in the trade as a control freak — [and, therefore] wasn’t going to let his reputation go without a fight”.

That is a long time between being “prepared” to sue and actually suing. If The Developer hasn’t sued yet, will he ever? What does it say about his reputation that he hasn’t continued the fight?

look at the claims
I am not an architect, I have never played one on television, and I don’t think I have ever stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, but … it seems to be a simple matter whether the Anonymous Architect is right or dead wrong about a whole litany of factual assertions. For example, the Anonymous Architect is either right or wrong about:

  • the skylight (the Anonymous Architect claims the Landmarks Commission Rowhouse Manual prohibits this without approval, and that there is no public record of an approval)
  • the present chimney height being higher than before, and permitted (or not)
  • renderings presented to Landmarks showed that front fire escapes wold be removed; pictures from the Anonymous Architect show the fire escapes remaining in place
  • the Anonymous Architect claims that Landmarks permit was explicitly predicated on ”maintaining the historic profile of the roofline” yet he has many pictures showing the roof has been raised
  • the Anonymous Architect claims that “drawings submitted to the Department of Buildings likewise fail to mention any increase in the height of the roof or side-wall”
  • the Anonymous Architect claims that “new window openings have been created in this wall just above the neighboring roof.  The Building Code doesn’t allow such windows in party walls.”
  • the Anonymous Architect claims that “the new party wall windows are not shown in amended drawings filed through May of last year, but suddenly appeared in amendment drawings filed in December, not proposed as new construction, but shown as existing, and thus rewritten into history.”

The Anonymous Architect has also claimed that “[c]racked and displaced bricks and window lintels are now features of its façade”, and posted photos showing what look like cracked and displaced bricks and window lintels. Maybe The Developer is also mad about these claims, and photos.

interesting reporting: are the claims true?
That New York Post article says that The Developer’s “chances of having the final word look promising”, but for some reason the article never considers whether the Anonymous Architect is right or wrong about any of the things he said.

I don’t know anything about the website CityFeet.com, but it describes itself as “CityfeetLocal is the leading online New York commercial real estate network, connecting New York commercial real estate property owners and brokers to tenants, brokers and investors.” It posted a piece about the dispute on August 30 that asserted “that [the Anonymous Architect has] falsely accused [The Developer] of infringing landmark laws and decimating historical framework in order to turn a profit” (my bold) as if that were a fact.

Maybe people familiar with that site would not be surprised to know that the author has the same name of a vice president at the major public relations firm in the city, one that represents many, many, many real estate developers and other players. Such people might also assume that such a piece is a work of pure PR, paid for by a PR client, even though that is not made explicit in the post and would not be known to someone who found it through a simple Google search.

As a piece of pure PR (presumably paid for by The Developer), it is especially odd that the August 30 assertion the The Developer “‘is prepared to vigorously preserve and protect his stellar reputation’ by filing suit against the blogger” has not yet come to pass.

to sue or not to sue, that is the question
I am not privy to The Developer’s strategic discussions here, but it seems to me that The Developer has already accomplished a few things. He has seeded the inter-tubes with Proclamations that the Anonymous Architect is “100% wrong” and that he is working with the Department of Buildings and the Landmarks Commission, and he has shown that someone taking a shot at him will be punched back … to some extent.

What The Developer has not done is to sue. Yet. If he were to sue for defamation, he would have to prove that stuff the Anonymous Architect says are not true.

Maybe there is a lot more uncertainty about what the Building Code and the Landmarks rules actually require than the Anonymous Architect asserts, but he has been very specific and very explicit about how he thinks things fall. In a lawsuit, The Developer would have to be equally specific and equally explicit.

Not suing, to me, is a pretty clear statement in its own right, especially from someone described in the Post as “known in the trade as a control freak — [and, therefore, who] wasn’t going to let his reputation go without a fight”. So far, The Developer has thrown only one legal punch (with the threat to throw more), and launched a PR offensive. Maybe he has accomplished what he set out to do already.

Stay tuned….

© Sandy Mattingly 2010

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