Developer Seeking Armory Job No Stranger to Controversy
By ALEX KRATZ
Peter Fine, the well-connected developer who is emerging as a top contender to secure the rights to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory, has cultivated success as well as controversy in other areas of the city.
As the Norwood News reported last issue, everyone interested in the armory project generally liked the detailed proposal Fine laid out at a Community Board 7 Land Use meeting on May 31. Fine put wind behind his own sails by securing a Zerega Avenue industrial site, which he would use to relocate the two National Guard units currently housed in the armory.
But community leaders stopped short of endorsing the proposal before the city outlines design requirements, in the form of a Request for Proposals (RFP) in late August.
Fine’s story reads like a rags-to-riches tale. The son of a cab driver, he grew up in a Queens public housing project. After earning his bachelor’s degree and doctorate in sociology from New York University, Fine began his non-profit housing development career in the late 1980s and early 1990s working for the Educational Alliance and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
In 1991, Fine created a development and consulting firm to assist social service organizations in creating service-oriented housing and treatment facilities. Fine then partnered with Marc Altheim in 1996 to form the Atlantic Development Group, which focuses on affordable housing projects in the five boroughs.
It’s through his prolific affordable housing work, which relies heavily on tax abatements from the city and state, that Fine has garnered attention as well as controversy.
“Some people are picking on him right now,” said Michael Stoler, a real estate columnist and television personality who works closely with Fine. “When people become successful, other people want to bring them down.”
Recently, Fine came under criticism from housing advocates and elected officials who said he “wildly inflated” construction costs in the development of two apartment complexes on the east side of Manhattan. To complete the projects, Fine had applied for $41 million in tax-exempt bonds and $13.3 million in tax credits from the state.
Brad Lander, director of the non-profit Pratt Center for Community Development, argued against the deal at a community meeting last November.
“This cost exaggeration alone could amount to approximately $8 million in exaggerated expenses and thus excess profits, paid for by taxpayers, potentially going straight into the developers’ pockets,” Lander said, according to a written copy of his testimony.
Lander, with the help of State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Sylvia Friedman, managed to stave off state legislative approval on Atlantic’s deals until the end of the session last week.
According to campaign finance records, Fine contributes heavily to numerous city, state and federal elected officials on both sides of the aisle. In 2005 alone, Fine gave local State Senator Efrain Gonzalez $7,000. Since 2004, Assemblyman and Bronx Democratic Chair Jose Rivera received more than $10,000 from Fine and his wife, Elizabeth. Fine also gave thousands to Rivera’s children, Joel, a Council member, and Naomi, an assemblywoman, during their last campaigns. Fine has also given money to Democratic powerhouses Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) as well as Republicans Dennis Hastert, the House Speaker, and Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
None of the Riveras or Gonzalez returned phone calls seeking comment.
Fine and his wife also have given a combined $65,341 to Pataki during the 2004 election cycle, according to campaign finance records.
Pataki appoints the membership of the state’s Housing Finance Agency (HFA), which issued tax-exempted bond financing for seven Atlantic projects between February 2004 and January 2006. According to research by Krueger and the Pratt Center, that accounts for 39 percent (seven out of 18) of the HFA deals completed during that same time period. In 2004, Atlantic hired former HFA official Ronald Schulman to be an executive vice president.
In a May memo from Pratt, Lander also questions Atlantic’s use of the non-profit group Senior Living Options, which Fine created. By working with a non-profit group, Atlantic receives other tax exemptions. In the application for these benefits, however, Atlantic failed to acknowledge that two out of the three directors of Senior Living Options had family or business ties. One of the directors is Altheim’s brother-in-law and the other is Michael Stoler, who acts as Atlantic’s title insurer in addition to his newspaper and television gigs.
In addition, the Pratt Center memo cites two deaths that have occurred on Atlantic construction sites over the past three years. In both cases, the contractors were hired by Atlantic and cited for safety violations, according to the memo. In the most recent death, on March 13, 2006, scaffolding collapsed at a site in the Melrose section of the Bronx. The construction company cited for safety violations was Knickerbocker LLC, an Atlantic-controlled contractor.
Lander says Fine has become successful by “pushing every envelope and cutting every corner.”
In a rebuttal to Lander’s accusations of cost-inflation and the hoarding of state funds, Altheim wrote a letter to the New York Observer, which published an article critical of Atlantic’s two east side development bids.
“These projects are valuable to all New Yorkers because they help fulfill the universally supported public policy goal of achieving economically integrated neighborhoods in New York City,” Altheim wrote.
Also, Altheim wrote, the cost of building the two projects was validated by outside consultants independent of the HFA and that “the creation of these two projects in no way impedes development of other affordable housing projects in [New York City] or [New York State].”
Fine said in an Observer interview that Atlantic dropped its partnership with Senior Living Options to avoid any conflict of interest.
Fine did not return several phone messages regarding this article.
Petr Stand, a Bronx resident and Manhattan architect who has worked on urban renewal efforts with residents of Melrose, where Fine has been a significant development presence, says the local community should proceed with caution. In Stand’s view, Atlantic’s developments aren’t appropriate for the Bronx, a borough of families.
Conversely, many see Fine as a philanthropist and humanitarian who provides valuable affordable housing where there isn’t any. Even Lander admits that “he does provide affordable housing.” In May, SUNY-Cortland awarded Fine an honorary doctorate for his work in the community and his $100,000 contribution for an endowment in memory of his father. Fine, a father of three, also serves on the board of several charitable organizations and his donations to the arts and other charities mirror his political contributions
Some community leaders believe that by securing a location for the National Guard, Fine may be the only developer with the right combination of resources to turn the Armory into a vital and sustainable community presence. But Lander’s not so sure.
“It’s not like he’s walking on water or turning stone into gold,” Lander said.
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