The North Philadelphia developer wanted prime real estate near Temple University that was owned by city taxpayers — but he didn’t want to pay the fair market value as determined by an independent appraisal.
“I will not back down or off these properties they are mine to buy!” Shawn Bullard emailed a Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority official in January 2015, copying a staffer for City Council President Darrell L. Clarke.
He ultimately got the land, with Clarke’s help.
Bullard, The Inquirer reported in February, purchased the vacant lots on Cecil B. Moore Avenue in 2016 at an unexplained $125,000 discount. He is currently building market-rate student housing and luxury apartments on the site. The newspaper’s questions have led to a review of the sale by the city’s inspector general.
Now, hundreds of pages of emails and other records obtained by The Inquirer through Right-to-Know requests show city officials scrambling unsuccessfully to determine who lowered the price and why.
They also shed light on the type of backroom deal-making that Mayor Jim Kenney and others have sought to eliminate to protect the interests of taxpayers when it comes to the sale of public land.
The emails indicate as well a greater interaction between Bullard and Clarke and his staff than Clarke’s office had previously acknowledged, with Clarke personally introducing Bullard to a key executive at the PRA and Bullard repeatedly contacting Clarke’s staff seeking help on the deal.
PRA appraiser: ‘No justification for a revision’
At issue are four lots on Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Willington Street that the city sold to Bullard in June 2016 for $370,000. That price was a significant drop from a city-ordered appraisal that had valued the properties at $495,000. City officials have been unable to explain why the price was lowered.
To learn more about the sales, The Inquirer used the Right-to-Know law to seek city records and communications involving the property.
Bullard, 37, a former Temple football player who also goes by the moniker “Zaddy,” sought to buy the lots since at least 2011 when he submitted an expression of interest for them. While at least seven other developers did the same for one or more of the lots, Bullard became the only eligible buyer thanks to a letter of support from Clarke in August 2014.
Under a tradition known as “councilmanic prerogative,” district Council members are given deference on land deals in their districts.
Clarke, the emails suggest, went further on Bullard’s behalf.
“The Developer was introduced today to me at City Council by CP Clarke and he asked that I follow up on this development,” Mary Fogg, the PRA’s director of government relations, wrote on March 26, 2015, to a project manager at the authority.
That was the same day Council passed a Clarke-authored resolution honoring Bullard for appearing on WE-TV’s Match Made in Heaven, a reality TV dating show, and for his real estate success, among other achievements.
Bullard initially sought to purchase the lots for about $124,000, an outdated price that had been set by the city’s automated land management system.
The PRA denied his request, citing city policy that requires competitive bidding or appraisals when multiple buyers have submitted expressions of interest in property.
The PRA’s appraisal valued the property at $495,000, or $123,750 per lot, as of January 2015, and the PRA’s in-house appraiser, Valentino Pasquarella, backed it up, writing in an October 2015 email that the appraisal is “well supportive” of the higher value.
“There’s no justification for a revision," Pasquarella wrote.
On Dec. 17, 2015, Brian Abernathy, then the executive director of the PRA, emailed Bullard, and copied Michael Koonce, Clarke’s director of special projects, and other PRA officials: “We will not sell these properties at the 2011 appraised value. … You can either move forward at the more recent value or we can close out your interest."
Developer to Clarke’s counsel: ‘Push my offer’
The next day, Bullard emailed Clarke’s legislative counsel, Jeffery Young.
“Hello Jeffery. Good seeing you last night bro,” Bullard wrote. “I’m hoping your office will push my offer of 75k-80k per lot.”
On Jan. 28, 2016, Bullard followed up with Young: “Hello Jeffery. I was told your office was pushing the acquisition price of 1620-26 Cecil B Moore through this week of the 24th.”
There is no record in the documents that Young responded to either email. But on Jan. 29, he forwarded Bullard’s messages to Koonce, Clarke’s director of special projects, and to Clarke’s constituent services representative, writing: “Any new updates?”
That afternoon, Koonce emailed Pasquarella, the PRA’s appraiser. The subject line in the email was “1620-1626 Cecil B Moore.” Koonce attached Bullard’s emails to Young.
“Hi Val. All the info I have is in the chain of emails below,” Koonce wrote. “If you could look at this and give me your opinion, I would greatly appreciate it.”
The emails stand in contrast to a statement from Clarke spokesperson Jane Roh in February saying that beyond introducing the October 2016 council resolution needed to finalize the transaction "neither the Council President nor the 5th District staff recall having any further or specific involvement with these property sales.”
By April 2016, the final price was dropped to $370,000.
Sales of comparable lots in the area, and interviews with developers, Realtors, and property managers, suggest that in 2016 the four lots could have gone for a combined $600,000 to $1 million through competitive bidding.
Under the city’s land disposition policy at the time, price adjustments were required to be voted on by the Real Estate Review Committee, composed of officials from the city’s landholding agencies and the Mayor’s Integrity Office. The recommendation of the committee should have been documented by each agency, but city officials have been unable to locate any committee records pertaining to the sale.
When The Inquirer raised questions about the price drop earlier this year, emails show that Gregory Heller, executor director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, conducted his own audit of the deal’s progress to determine how the discount was approved.
The email trail leads to Tania Nikolic, then a deputy executive director at the PRA, who entered the $370,000 price into the city’s land management data system on April 29, 2016. She emailed Bullard that evening referring to the new price as “the appraised price of $370,000.”
There is no explanation in the record of how that price was reached.
Nikolic, who no longer works at the PRA, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Pasquarella, the PRA’s now-retired appraiser, referred questions to the PRA. Officials there declined to comment, citing the inspector general’s ongoing review.
Asked about the email exchanges, Roh said on Tuesday that Clarke’s office was not involved in the appraisal process or price setting and that “those duties are performed exclusively by the land-holding agency, in this case the PRA.”
“Even if a [Clarke] staffer were to express an opinion about pricing, it would have — and also should have — no influence on PRA’s decision-making,” Roh said.
Clarke does not recall introducing Bullard to the PRA’s Fogg, Roh said, but he does not dispute that he might have.
In March, after news reports about underpriced city land sales aided by Council members, Mayor Kenney wrote in a letter to City Council that future sales are to be conducted through a competitive process, with some exceptions, including for affordable housing and community gardens.
“While we cannot comment on the specifics of this case, the Mayor has made it clear that he wants to ensure a fair and open sale process of all future dispositions of City-owned properties," said mayoral spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco. "While members of Council do provide valuable input during this process, they should not have such an outsized role when it comes to land sales.”
Clarke and other Council members have argued that competitive bidding can hasten gentrification by wealthy out-of-town developers, and prevent local developers from acquiring land. His office has defended the Bullard deal.
“We support minority participation in redevelopment and commercial activity in the City of Philadelphia, which to our great frustration falls far short of fully representative participation in the private sector, over which we have little to no control,” Roh said. “To that end, we view this redevelopment agreement as a net positive for the City of Philadelphia.”
Bullard did not respond to requests for comment.