An occasional series By N. Clark Judd
The half-finished building on Tulfan Terrace at Oxford Avenue just sits there, as it has for years, protruding over Riverdale Avenue like a gray wart with a tracery of scaffolding for veins.
With the economy in crisis and one of the original investors in the project evading a felony money-laundering indictment, there may not be much hope for the project to succeed. Like other projects on the hill above Riverdale Avenue, Tulfan Terrace has stalled, and there’s no telling when, or if, it will start again.
“Where you have abandoned property sites, where you have empty areas and they’re allowed to grow out … they’re a blight on the community that invariably, without exception, spreads,” said Charles Moerdler, chairman of Community Board 8’s land use committee and a former Department of Buildings commissioner.
The man who gave Riverdale this wart is named James Murray. A fugitive from the fraud and embezzlement charges he was slapped with in 2006, he’s reportedly cooling his heels in Ireland. His partners in the development, Robert Wagner and Michael Bookle, have to pay the federal government for his $6 million interest in the project, and already had to make arrangements to deal with the $3.5 million he had invested in another local project, 3536 Cambridge Ave., on top of settling millions more in construction loans, court records show.
While the remaining partners in the project are apparently struggling to come up with new investors, the project’s neighbors say they’re suffering because they live next to the towering, abandoned building.
For more than a year, members of the neighboring co-op at 525 W. 236th St. have been trying to get Mr. Wagner to clean up the site. Co-op board vice president Halema Hassan has complained of property damage from water run-off, damage to the sidewalk along Oxford Avenue, mosquitoes breeding in standing water, and debris on upper levels of the building that could fall.
“This is going on over three years empty, and two years construction, so we’ve been [dealing] with this for five years,” Ms. Hassan said.
In August, a representative from the Bronx borough president’s office sent a letter to city Department of Buildings officials with similar observations. According to online city records, no additional violations have been issued.
The Department of Buildings press office did not return a call for comment by press time.
Naomi Beth Gans, who lives across the street, pointed to wooden supports bolstering the property’s tall plywood fence, saying neighbors have repeatedly complained that the fence was unsafe.
The Tulfan Terrace tower was to have 30 units when completed, and fetch between $800,000 to $1 million a unit, Mr. Wagner said in an April interview. He did not return calls for comment for this article.
That the building is half-finished even now is not entirely Mr. Murray’s — or even Mr. Wagner’s — fault. Federal prosecutors have agreed to take their cut of profits from the building only after its other loans are paid off, stipulating that they have as much of an interest in the project’s success as Mr. Wagner does.
But the current market is not one in which investors are ripe on the vine, and the fruit of Mr. Murray’s alleged wrongdoing saddles Mr. Wagner and his partner with additional debt.
Walter Mack, an independent investigator who for about a decade rooted out mob influence and corruption in the New York City District Council of Carpenters, which represents area carpenters’ unions, uncovered a trail of cashed checks and conducted dozens of depositions that suggested to prosecutors that Mr. Murray’s On Par Contracting Corp. was paying carpenters in cash, under the table. U.S. Attorney Michael J. Garcia of the Southern District Court of New York alleged in a 2006 indictment that Mr. Murray falsified reports to the union and lied about the number of workers on his jobs to skip out on over $10 million in benefits payments to the union by paying its members in cash.
Mr. Murray then invested the money he should have spent on health care for his workers in otherwise legitimate real estate ventures, prosecutors say.
A 2006 civil lawsuit, settled in June 2007, ended when a federal judge found Mr. Murray liable for over $13 million in back payments to union benefits funds, including interest and fees.
But On Par — with Mr. Murray still a fugitive — sued the union in April for hundreds of millions of dollars, alleging that union officers had a “corrupt scheme” to take bribes in exchange for giving employers their pick of workers, giving On Par’s competitors an unfair advantage.
It may be a long time, if ever, before the legal issues are settled.