NORWALK, Conn. – Jason Milligan is pleading with the City and Redevelopment Agency for another court-assisted mediation session, this time looking to end multiple lawsuits.
Milligan on Thursday revealed to NancyOnNorwalk information from the previous mediation session, against the confidentiality pact agreed to by the parties. On Friday, Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss wrote to Milligan, “I do not appreciate you calling yelling, threatening and swearing at me. If you expect a positive response from us this is not the way to go about it.”
Milligan, frustrated by what he characterizes as indifference and dishonesty from the Redevelopment Agency, is presenting his Isaacs Street area Concept Master Site Plan (CSMP) to the public. “This plan is good for the area. We should be talking about it,” he wrote.
The plan shows a street between the Wall Street Theater and 83 Wall St., which Milligan owns. This street was approved as part of the stalled Wall Street Place development, referred to as “POKO,” but eliminated in the mysteriously quiet “McClutchy plan” to restart construction. The street would lead directly to a parking garage on Milligan’s property at 23 Isaacs St., the former Leonard Street municipal lot.
The City and Norwalk Redevelopment Agency are seeking to overturn Milligan’s purchase of that lot, in a lengthy and expensive lawsuit that seems to have no end in sight.
“The only guarantee for POKO is that there will be legal challenges for the foreseeable future. Think Stamford hole in the ground,” Milligan wrote in a Nov. 11 email to Common Council members, Redevelopment Agency Commissioners, Citibank reps and Todd McClutchy. “If I had more patience or if I cared less about the Wall Street area I would just shut up and wait. I am not patient and I want to fix Wall Street now! I am not content to watch the government continue to mess up the area.”
City officials decline to comment on pending litigation.
Save the Garden Cinemas?
The “McClutchys,” Citibank’s preferred redeveloper for Wall Street Place, would have to come up with a different plan under Milligan’s proposal. To Milligan, they’d be “free to come up with whatever plan they thought were feasible and would be accepted by the public. Probably NOT 100% affordable housing, and definitely NOT tearing down Garden Cinemas.
The McClutchys plan to buy and demolish the Garden Cinemas and construct a parking garage, because Wall Street Place is noncompliant with the Zoning regulations, as is. The late Ken Olson of POKO Partners reduced the size of his planned underground parking garage and got the Zoning Commission to quietly allow him to move some of the parking spaces onto his phase II property – the property Milligan bought in May 2018, inspiring the major lawsuit.
The plan to raze the Cinemas stirred a public outcry and in July the Council tabled the McClutchy plan until September. It has yet to resurface.
Although some people think they might save the Cinemas, owner Richard Freedman said he’s selling no matter what. Attendance has dropped by more than half, he said in March. Freedman closed his Stamford film arthouse, the State Cinema, in 2018.
An alternative idea was to create an arthouse movie theater and arts center in Wall Street Place. The vote to table Wall Street Place was accompanied by Mayor Harry Rilling announcing that the plan would be revised; Rilling does not reply to emails asking about the status of that.
Frank Farricker, who with Marc Alan formed a nonprofit in hopes of buying the Cinema or another space to create a community theater and film technology education center, in September said he was “optimistic” that something would be worked out. Now he declines comment.
Freedman said Saturday that he’s still expecting to sell the Cinemas to the McClutchys. There is “no date certain” on the McClutchy’s option to buy, he has explained.
‘So what do I propose?’
The money to build the new street (literally called “New Street”) has already been allocated, Milligan wrote. So step one of his plan is to build it. Step two is to build a four to five story garage on his lot at 23 Isaacs Street.
Then-Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) in October indicated that City officials weren’t interested. Milligan was the only one talking about it, he said.
“New Street #1 would continue underneath the new parking garage to allow for an exit out to Leonard Street,” Milligan wrote Wednesday. “The ceiling would be 15 feet high to allow for trucks & emergency vehicles. The 15 foot height will make the garage open and airy which will make the garage feel safer and give the nearby businesses visibility.”
“Located underneath the garage and accessed by a separate gated entrance would be 100 dedicated spaces for Wall Street Place… easily accessed on foot through a lobby located on Isaacs Street directly across the main entrance to Phase I,” he wrote. There would be 300-400 spaces for the public.
“The wonderful thing about putting New Street #1 & the parking garage in 1st is it provides for much needed loading for Wall Street Theater, excellent circulation, open bright safe walking space to parking,” he wrote. “…The added bonus of this CMSP is that it has the potential to settle 6 lawsuits.”
Milligan’s first CMSP: Issac Square Master Plan 5-23-19
“Mediation is what we should be doing,” Milligan wrote Thursday. “A talented, experienced and dispassionate 3rd party helps move the dialogue. We reluctantly went to mediation for the preliminary injunction and surprisingly after 1 day we bridged a huge divide. I think everyone was equally shocked at the results.”
Mediation was a topic Dec. 2 in Court, during the latest hearing on the lawsuit stemming from his purchase of POKO properties. Judge Charles Lee asked Attorney Chris Drury, representing the Redevelopment Agency, if the public parties were interested in further mediation.
“I’m not gonna make any representations for a mediation because of what occurred last time around,” Drury said. “I don’t want to get into the specifics. But there were circumstances where I got don’t want to make a representation.”
Milligan flashed what would commonly be referred to as a “s— eating grin.”
During a recess, Milligan appeared to want to explain to NancyOnNorwalk what had happened but was admonished by his attorney, David Rubin, that everyone had agreed that the mediation would be confidential.
On Thursday, Milligan forwarded an email chain to NancyOnNorwalk. It included this passage from Nov. 14, an email he’d sent to Straus and Redevelopment Agency Chairman Felix Serrano:
“Tami made it very clear that the money for legal fees in this case needed to stop from the Agency. On more than one occasion during the mediation a few weeks ago Tami said there is no more money. In fact the presiding judge made a joke that the public parties have unlimited money to spend on legal bills, and Tami interrupted and said ‘That is NOT true, there is no more money from the Agency.’”
Straus declined to comment. Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola and Rilling did not reply to an email asking about the comment.
The total paid by the Redevelopment Agency for Wall Street litigation was $571,394, according to results from an FOI request. NancyOnNorwalk asked for a new total Monday but it has not been provided yet.
Milligan not #winning: Judge orders deposition
Monday’s court date featured multiple topics, including Milligan’s request to limit the plaintiff’s deposition of him.
Lee ruled against Milligan’s request, ordering:
- Milligan may be deposed more than once, including one now and further depositions in the future, should evidence make that necessary
- No time limit on the first deposition
- He will be questioned about Milligan Real Estate
The plaintiffs had requested sanctions for what they called a “frivolous” motion to limit Milligan’s deposition. Rubin called their accusations “disturbing” and “outrageous,” and characterized the motion as reasonable. There was no other commentary about the request for sanctions and Lee did not impose fines.
The afternoon featured many legal arguments, an examination of the merits of the lawsuit; ISLR, the POKO-derivative company Milligan bought the property from, had sought that the case against it be dismissed, and Lee ruled against that.
The plaintiffs’ requested remedies, including the desire to reverse the sale, were discussed.
Rubin admitted that Milligan’s purchase was an “unpermitted transfer” but said that under the law, monetary damages were the only acceptable remedy.
“I don’t agree with you,” Lee replied. “… it’s hard to accept when somebody says ‘yeah, something went wrong and you can’t do anything about it.’”
The court cannot order the property back to ILSR, Rubin argued, but Lee said there’s precedent.
ILSR sold the property to Milligan for $5.2 million because it’s underwater and “not even operating,” Rubin said. Undoing the transfer “from a party that’s building the area to a party that’s in essence, out of business because its main partner died… and being sued for millions of dollars and probably doesn’t have the ability to transfer back the $5.2 million” isn’t practical under the law.
Milligan acknowledged risk by agreeing to the language in the purchase and sales agreement, Lee said.
Milligan on Saturday characterized Lee’s comments as simply determining that the case can proceed. In a Thursday email he called the plan to give the properties back to ILSR, or Richard Olson, “moronic.” And, “They are not even asking to get the property back to themselves.”
Swearing at Straus
Milligan said he created the CMSP at a cost of $3,000 after being told that’s what was needed, in a meeting with Straus and Serrano, “only to be ignored.”
On Friday, Straus “invented new roadblocks to creating a dialogue,” he wrote Friday, after swearing at her in a phone call.
“Clearly you were never serious about working with me to find solutions and you created tasks were unreasonable and you thought I would not do them,” he wrote.
Straus in an email to Milligan said his CMSP does not include basic details such as the bulk of the buildings, their height and expected uses.
“We will review your request internally next week and get back to you,” she wrote to Milligan.
The Redevelopment Agency’s new executive director, Brian Bidolli, begins work Monday.
“I am confident that Brian will take some time to get comfortable in the job. I started conversations with Tami & Felix several weeks ago. If they wanted to wait for Brian they should have said that,” Milligan wrote. “…I spent money based upon her instructions that she has changed now that I did what she told me to do.”
Making a killing?
Farricker recently told NancyOnNorwalk that Milligan comes at people with an idea that seems reasonable, and when they agree to the concept and get down to the details he asks for things they weren’t expecting, on the grounds that he is a businessman and need to make a profit. So people stop dealing with him.
“Frank is an intelligent person and I commend his efforts with the Wall Street Theater,” Milligan wrote. “I have never had the occasion to negotiate or conduct business with Frank ever! So I have no idea what the basis for his assertions are. Does Frank purport to speak for the City? It sounds like speculation to me, which is what we are left with when the City hides in executive session, behind non-disclosure agreements, and hides behind the ‘No comment during pending, active, or settled litigation’.”
Milligan declines to say what he’d want from the City in exchange for 100 parking spaces for Wall Street Place residents, in his hoped-for garage.
“Who are you negotiating for about WSP parking? Do you ask on behalf of Harry & Mario?” he replied, when asked what he wants. “I am not going negotiate against myself or limit possibilities. I am willing to consider an amazingly wide range of options, and I have a very creative way of looking at real estate.”
Again, he bought the POKO Phase II and III properties because he wanted dialogue, he said Saturday.
“I do not have a clear path to a financial win,” he said. “It was f— crazy, that’s why it caught them off guard.”
A “best bet” in this scenario would be a “so-so” investment. “I have made some awesome investments. This won’t be one of them,” and in a baseball analogy it’s at best a single not his customarily expected triple.
While he’s a Libertarian he’s also a “practical guy,” and he recognizes that Rilling won the election, he said. “Now is the time to be talking,” he said. “I want to solve the problem. … If we want to put 100% affordable housing in (Wall Street Place), I’ll deal with it.”
“I have an unusual ability and capacity to help (the area),” he said. “For a variety of reasons, what I have studied, what I have done with my life, my business, real estate, studying economics, my love for the area, the properties I own. There is no one better situated to help this area or more willing.”
Story corrected at 10:06 a.m.: Confidentiality was not court ordered in the mediation.