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BY SAM SPOKONY | Citing longstanding complaints of freezing apartments, sky-high electric bills, rising rents and lack of necessary repairs, two Gateway Plaza tenants on Tuesday filed a $100 million class action lawsuit against the complex’s management and the Battery Park City Authority.
One of those tenants, Maureen Koetz – a former vice-president of Gateway’s tenant association – is the lead plaintiff in the suit, which has yet to officially include any other plaintiffs. The other, Democratic District Leader Jenifer Rajkumar, is an attorney whose firm, Sanford Heisler, filed the suit in State Supreme Court.
The lawsuit seeks recovery of rent and electricity overpayments, as well as an injunction requiring the LeFrak Organization – which manages the six-building, 1,700-unit complex on a ground lease from the B.P.C.A. – to finally rectify Gateway’s “defective” conditions.
The suit, which came as a surprise to others involved in the issue, comes in the middle of ongoing negotiations between, on one side, LeFrak and the B.P.C.A., and on the other, the Gateway tenant association, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Senator Daniel Squadron and City Councilmember Margaret Chin. It’s unclear whether the suit could potentially derail those negotiations, which seek to mitigate the very same longstanding complaints over which Rajkumar’s firm filed the action.
“This is about giving the tenants a voice,” Rajkumar told Downtown Express in an April 2 phone interview. “Now is the time for the tenants to come together and make a bold effort to take care of this problem once and for all.”
She said that she and her office had already been “deluged” by around 100 other Gateway tenants hoping to join the class action suit, although Koetz was still the only official plaintiff as of 5 p.m. Wednesday.
The Gateway tenant association, however, will not be joining the suit, and has now distanced itself entirely from the action. Glenn Plaskin, the T.A. president, told this newspaper on Wednesday that his board has voted unanimously to remain neutral in the matter.
“We have chosen the path of negotiation,” said Plaskin, “and we consider ourselves fortunate to have the support of our elected officials, and the strong support of B.P.C.A. Chairman Dennis Mehiel. They have all exerted a coordinated effort to improve living conditions at Gateway, and we as a tenant association will continue to do everything within our power to have management comply with what is in the best interest of tenants.”
The tenant leader further stressed that the vast majority of the complex’s approximately 5,000 tenants are not, at this point, involved in the litigation. Plaskin also added that he, along with others involved in the ongoing negotiations, was not aware that the suit was going to be filed on Tuesday.
“We’ve been talking about the possibility of doing this for a long time, so it should not have been a surprise to anyone,” Rajkumar said when asked why she and Koetz did not inform Plaskin or any of the elected officials before announcing the suit.
“But I welcome anyone who wants to collaborate, including the elected officials,” she said, while adding that she has not attempted to make contact with the electeds since it was filed.
Both Rajkumar and Koetz have clashed with two of the elected officials currently involved in the Gateway negotiations.
Rajkumar notably attempted to oust Chin in the councilmember’s bid for reelection last year, although Chin beat her by 17 points in a hard-fought primary battle. Rajkumar said on Wednesday that she has “no current plans” to run for elected office again.
Koetz, a Republican, and a former U.S. Air Force assistant secretary, told the media in February that she plans to run for Silver’s office, citing his alleged mismanagement of the Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal.
Neither Chin nor Silver addressed the new suit in statements sent to Downtown Express on Wednesday.
Chin said in her statement that she will “continue to work with local elected officials and Gateway residents to ensure that LeFrak honors [its] commitment” to make the desparately needed repairs.
Silver said he will continue working with Gateway’s T.A., the other electeds and the B.P.C.A. to address the complex’s “deplorable” conditions. “I will continue that effort by pursuing all available options for ensuring that these [poorly insulated] windows are replaced,” the statement continued.
The only elected official willing to talk about the lawsuit — albeit briefly — was Squadron, who, in a phone interview Wednesday, called the suit a “separate effort” from the negotiations being undertaken by he and the other electeds.
“I think this just shows how frustrated people are about the living conditions in their apartments,” the state senator said. “The [lawsuit and the neogtiations] are separate facts that lead to the same conclusion, which is that we have a serious issue here with those living conditions.”
Squadron added that, from the perspective of he and the other electeds, the suit will not stop their negotiations with LeFrak and the B.P.C.A. from going forward as they have been for more than a year, since LeFrak publicly promised to make the building repairs and upgrades.
For its part, LeFrak responded to the lawsuit by calling it “baseless and without merit.”
“The property provided the plaintiff [Koetz] with two brand new Frigidaire heat pump units on December 9,” a representative of the developer said in a statement Tuesday. “All equipment at the property is capable of meeting all code standards for climate comfort. Currently there are no unaddressed HPD violations for lack of heat at the property. The property is eminently habitable and many residents enjoy long tenure at Gateway; some have even lived at the property continuously since its opening in 1986. The plaintiff clearly enjoys living at Gateway because she herself renewed her own lease in December 2013.”
The B.P.C.A. declined to comment.