Lawsuit Filed Against Builders of the Siena

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UPDATED WITH STATEMENT FROM PINNACLE’S BRIAN STOLER AT THE END.

When the builders of the Siena announced their new condominium development in 2006, they described it as an “enclave of luxury in an urban village setting.” Then last November, news broke that the luxury condos were plagued with mold.

On June 8, the Siena Condominium Association filed suit against the parties responsible for the development, design, construction and sale of the Siena.

This action was brought against multiple parties including the Pinnacle Companies, Kohl Partners, and Herod development companies for extensive construction defects and “resulting deteriorating conditions.” Other responsible parties may be added. The suit does not ask for a fixed monetary amount but requests “compensatory damages, interest, reasonable attorney’s fee and costs, and for such other, further, and different relief as the Court may deem just and proper.” The suit also cites violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, as well as common law fraud, negligence, and breach of contract and warranty, as its basis.

The suit includes 14 counts against the defendants. Included in counts are breach of warranties, misrepresentation in advertising the Siena, breach of contract for failing to conform to building codes, and negligence. The suit also charges that Kohl Partners was a general contractor on the project with Herod and their partner as well, creating a conflict of interest. It also singles out Kohl Partners President Alan Litt, Kohl Construction Group CEO Jonathan Litt, and Pinnacle Companies CEO Brian Stolar, three of the individual defendants, who as controlling members of the Siena’s board of directors did not see to any necessary repairs before the Siena Condominium Association (SCA) assumed control of the building in March 2009.

The details of this suit were provided to Baristanet by Robert Epstein of the law firm Greenberg Traurig in Florham Park, who is representing the SCA. The suit says that construction defects require immediate attention and repair, and that the SCA cannot afford to pay for the necessary reconstruction. The suit recognizes every resident as a member of the SCA.

This united front could not have come any sooner for Raniya Kassem, a Siena resident who filed her own suit against the developers after her unit became uninhabitable. She was forced to move to quarters elsewhere in the building after toxic mold was discovered in the unit she purchased.

“I’ve paid my taxes, I’ve paid my mortgage and my maintenance fees in all the time since I purchased the [unit],” Kassem said. “I’ve been paying for something I cannot live in.”

Kassem, who purchased her original apartment in July 2008, has been living in another unit for over two years while her own unit has been gutted. Both apartments show signs of leakage, with water seeping through the window edges. In her original apartment, the water seeps through the window sills and collects into buckets; even the tarp on the floor shows the effects of water damage. Parts of the wall were removed for mold remediation, but they continue to leak, and the gutted walls have not been restored. Rust is visible in the inner steel structure.

“Awful doesn’t begin to describe it,” she says.

When the developers completed the Siena in November 2007, after brisk sales of most of its 101 units (eight remain unsold), the building looked like a major asset in the redevelopment of Montclair, where it replaced the old Hahne’s department store. Almost as soon as residents began moving in, in late 2007 and early 2008, water leakage began appearing in the building and its subterranean parking garage. A preliminary engineering report, called the “Falcon Report,” was commissioned by the SCA when it took over responsibility for the Siena in March 2009. Issued in February 2010, the Falcon Report revealed a laundry list of problems: improperly installed windows, improperly installed fire protection, improperly installed siding, and improperly constructed garage walls.

Two engineering reports, Desman I and Desman II, provided by the defendants themselves, also detail faults in construction. Desman I cites Siena’s roof  (prone to “water ponding” in rainstorms, and uneven in various areas affecting drainage), and sealant deterioration in the windows and walls. Desman II, focusing on the parking structures, finds among other things, deteriorating sealant and concrete and the cracking of concrete. “If this problem is not addressed,” the report says, “the continued seepage of salt laden moisture can cause the corrosion of the structural elements of the garage.”

All three reports are preliminary. Condo owners say repairs have not been made despite repeated promises.

Attempts to contact Pinnacle, Kohl Partners and Herod Development LLC for comment on this article were unsuccessful, as were attempts to reach members of the SCA for comment. But Raniya Kassem was quite eager to comment on their suit.

“If they ever build again in Montclair,” Kassem said of the developers, “it should give great concern. No one in Montclair should allow them to build anything in this town. [Montclair residents] should be informed about the quality of their work.”

Of her own experiences, she says, “No one should have to live like this.”

In an email correspondence received July 11, Brian Stoler of Pinnacle wrote:

It is truly unfortunate that Vince, Carlton and others have had problems with their homes. We have been in business over 25 years and we have built many residential projects in New Jersey. Our track record of creating and developing successful projects is significant and we have had a tremendously low record of any problems whatsoever.

Siena is a Joint Venture with another developer, and for the record, they are not involved with the DCH project. We and our joint venture partner are addressing as best as possible the problems at Siena, which were caused by others. We also regret that Vince, Carlton and the condominium association have elected to institute litigation, which in my opinion just slows down the process and obviously makes it impossible for us to comment publicly.

38 COMMENTS

  1. Remarkable, how we were just discussing the underground streams and ponds as well as the problematic culvert issues on the thread about the South Park redevelopment project. Until about 100 years ago, before we became a residential suburb, Montclair was a famous springs and climatic station resort, rich with water sources, brooks and ponds. On the oldest 1857 map and even on the later maps there is a brook and even a small pond that corresponds to the site where the Sienna is. In 1919, the famous urban planner Nolan, proposed a town Green for the site, perhaps because of the waters. Before the Sienna, there was the Hahnes department store, sleekly designed to serve Montclair, considered to be the second richest community in the US. Before the Hahnes, there was an 1880’s Victorian club structure.

  2. I posted about this a while ago. Cary disputed my “over-heard rumor”. Maybe that is just what it is…a rumor. But things are staring to point in that direction. I heard that when the Sienna was being built, the sewer and water plans were pushed through, even though they were not up to snuff. The town wanted the Sienna built, no matter what. So shoddy plans were allowed to go through and now they are trying to fix “the problem”. It is costing us a bundle. My source is pretty good, so Cary, prove me wrong.

  3. How many units in the Sienna have appealed their October 2011 real estate assessments? Does anyone want to speculate whether this building generates more revenue for the town after next year’s re-evaluation?

  4. Montclairgirl,

    I honestly don’t remember “disputing” your claim, but there’s no reason for our planning department to let plans “slide through.” We use an “outside” engineering firm to represent the Town, and I’m sure the Sienna’s submitted plans had to be signed off by many professionals.

    I guess we’re going to have to wait and see this play out. I have to believe that its a frustrating situation for all involved.

    As to revaluation, I would imagine the assessors would look at comparables. The units were quite expensive, and I don’t think one can automatically assume assessments would be going UP.

    Cary Africk

  5. I’m no expert on property valuation, but I seem to recall that “comparables” need to be somewhere near by. I’m curious how far one would have to look to find a “comparable” for toxic mold.

    On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure I want to know the answer.

    Is this really “toxic mold” as in: if she’d continued to live there, Raniya Kassem would have died?

    …Andrew

  6. ….oh and prior to Hahnes and the 1880′s Victorian club structure, this was the site of the West Bloomfield/Cranetown Cemetery.

  7. If water is coming through the walls, several stories up, the problem would not to be underground streams, or, for that matter, sewer and water plans “not up to snuff”.

  8. After the Siena building’s completion, back in August 2006, there were underground fires and then also water main breaks. The leaks from above travel down and can worsen problematic conditions underneath, especially if dampness already exists.

  9. Spiro – the leaks are not just within the units themselves. My 2 bedroom unit on the 5th floor has windows that leak and walls that have been ripped out multiple times. In the three years I have owned the unit, the unit has been without certain walls for periods of over a full year (with a replacement wall going up only to be ripped out when the next rains fall). As far as the city letting things slide, to that I can not attest. I can, however, tell you that the underground garage leaks like a sieve with water pouring down the foundation walls and unit owners being forced to cover their cars or risk damage to them from the sediment in the water damaging the paint. I have multiple photos of all of this and have been suing Pinnacle and Kohl for well over a year. Prior to legal action, I begged Brian Stolar of Pinnacle and Jonathan Litt of Kohl to repair the problem. I begged the Township of Montclair for help to resolve the issue (to which I was told they were not responsible to help) and I begged the State of New Jersey for help. Nobody wants to be in this position – lawsuits are hard on the wallet and hard on the heart. I now own a unit which is uninhabitable, unrentable, full of mold and water leaks where I really can’t even park a car without risk of damage due to water intrusion issues. So – while I can’t say for sure that Montclair lets things slide through – they certainly haven’t been any assistance in resolving issues in a building which has had problems since day one and which they issued a CO for.

  10. Waltermitty & Cary,

    The Siena PILOT agreement I read indicates that the residents can not appeal the assessed value. Has it been amended?

    I’ve been hearing about this suit brewing. It is shocking that this group of developers have been given the OK to develop across the street. How is the review of the contract with the company to dredge Edgemont Pond going? The last the MT wrote, this was going to be reviewed.

  11. The situation sounds awful, montclair973. The builders clearly did not know how to build an apartment building, or even a basement. I wish you and your fellow tenants the best of luck.

  12. I wouldn’t trust these folks to build a doghouse. Besides being aestheticaly unappealing, mold can be very toxic to people who have sensitivities, allergies or a compromised immune system. If you’re living in an ancient structure, you might expect some mold. If you are living in a relatively new building, where you just paid $500,000 for a unit, you shouldn’t have to be dealing with mold. Let justic prevail.

  13. So when I’m working out at the Sports Club, gasping for air on the treadmill, am I breathing in moldy air?

    What would the remedies for this much recurring mold damage be? Will they have to start from scratch and rebuild?

    Isn’t it great the $1 mm South Park Street renovation project was approved only to find out the block is most likely going to be jammed with construction vehicles to repair the building (hopefully for the tenants sake). And this group was approved to build across the street? What is going on here?

  14. You guys are cruel. Everybody makes mistakes. Builders are people, too. They have children to raise, families to keep together, little doggies to feed…

  15. allabout,

    Yes, the owners make a PILOT payment. But there is a mechanism to change the amount. Thank you for reminding me! It is not as simple as a reassessment for them!

    ALSO: the agreement is complex, and we are STILL trying to understand it now.

    Cary Africk

  16. As you know, frankgg, the Dutch built Amsterdam in wetlands (they used to call it a swamp), but they dug the canal rings to help drain the land. They did this with primitive technology, centuries ago. The houses are still there, and they probably don’t leak.

  17. So how do we stop this developer from putting up another disaster?

    Hey Mayor – you know what really hurts the reputation of a town – shoddy construction that leads to lawsuits and a town that shrugs it off while rubber stamping the same developers next project. Trust me a lot more then my little post here.

  18. So Spiro, I guess we should make South Park and Church Streets into canals instead of the current renovation plans.

  19. hrh,

    There’s really nothing the town can do, legally.

    If there is a health hazard in an individual apartment, theoretically the health department could take action. But they would take action against the owner of the apartment and I don’t think that’s what apartment owners want.

    Seems to me that SCA is doing the proper, appropriate thing.

    Cary Africk

  20. They might not be able to do anything for this building now….but going forward there is a lot the town could do to be proactive in preventing these type of problems.

    My friend lived in the building behind Sienna. We watched the construction daily – including the build up of puddles on dry sunny days along the foundation. We are techie geeks with no construction backgrounds and all thought gee that can’t be good.

  21. hrhppg,

    I wish you would assert yourself more frequently on the posts and at the Town Meetings. Your thoughts and perspectives seem very wise and much needed in Montclair.

  22. If the town has any control over other development projects by these developers, then why not use that control? Either boot those developers as a consequence for this hazardous work (and as a way to avoid more hazardous work), or block the new work until the previous work is completed to everyone’s satisfaction.

    I’m still in amazement: “toxic mold”? Selling toxic properties ought to be prohibited, right? Or is this an example of caveat emptor?

    …Andrew

  23. @HowardBeale, canals would be a tourist draw, complete with gondoliers. I’d be all for it. Then we can recoup the costs with perimeter businesses – endodontists (root canal) ENT’s (ear canal) OBGYN’s (birth canal) etc.

  24. I think Montclair should award the builder of the Siena another new project. This one should be much larger and bolder. Perhaps they could be hired for the DCS property rehab? Oh wait, they already got that job. Only in Montclair!

  25. Oh Stu. They just made this one little mistake, surely they deserve a second chance!

    And re the covenant that the Siena residents could not challenge their assessments, I heard from a knowledgeable source that the township never ensure that the developer put this in the sale deeds for the individual condos so the residents cannot be bound by the agreement – they were never duly informed of it as a condition of the sale.

    Nice work, just like the shoddy language in the PILOT agreement for the commercial space. Is there a responsible grownup in charge anywhere at 205 Claremont?

  26. Wishing Ms. Kassem and the Siena residents all the best in resolving this very inopportune inconvenience and that soon they may enjoy living comfortably in their homes as well as to enjoy all of the good things that this very special town has to offer. Montclair is someplace, not just anyplace… I hope that all of this unpleasantness passes soon so that they may be happy living in Montclair.

  27. A perfect punishment for the developers of the Siena would be to force them to live in their own building. Should they be found guilty, of course./snark

  28. I don’t worry about more mid/high rise development in the SPark/Gateway part of the CBD in the near-term. Per frankgg’s SPark post, it seems to be a very old, complex ecosystem under these streets & buildings. Unfortunately, subjected over the years to a host of man-made intrusions not fully understood or regularly evaluated.

  29. Mrs. M, great idea! And one that would certainly have a happy ending, which I always like, a’la “The Super” starring Joe Pesci (1991)!

  30. “Either boot those developers as a consequence for this hazardous work (and as a way to avoid more hazardous work), or block the new work until the previous work is completed to everyone’s satisfaction.”

    Wow that idea is so crazy it might actually work !

    We could also let other communities know not to let them start projects in their towns. Sadly these creeps will probably so some legal shifting of names,PTB, etc and go sell snake oil someplace else.

  31. There is indeed a complex ecosystem under the streets & buildings and also even more remarkable, the richness of water sources springing from the top of First Mountain. (at the top of the mountain there are rocks that seem to bleed water and there are also lakes and reservoirs)
    While digging a train tunnel in 1876, under the top of Bloomfield Avenue, a vein of water was hit creating a new limb of Toney’s Brook and a swamp today known as Frog Hollow. The train project had to be abandoned because of the great volume of water.
    Its interesting to see all of the brooks, ponds and swamps on the old maps, and to notice as time progresses, from map to map, show these bodies of water disappear, as the town gets more developed.
    The streams and ponds were not deleted as if they were just photo shopped out from our maps. The water is still there, (perhaps even greater in volume today) funneled into primitive culverts and underground tanks. It would be ingenious to create projects to build over or plant trees without regards to the 150+/- year old underground culverts.
    I’m organizing images that I have and will send them to the Baristas.

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