On its stylish Web site, Creating Real Estate Innovations (CREI) promises "unique, deeply satisfying living experiences" in Philadelphia. "Simply put," the home page proclaims, "CREI does not exist to create more of the same."
Yet after five years that spanned both the heady days of the real estate boom and the hellish days of the bust, CREI's creative output consists of little more than abandoned projects and unfinished condominium buildings.
Instead, the legacy of its owners, Gagandeep Lakhmna, Harbir Singh, and Amardeep "Billy" Grewal, lives on in delinquent construction loans, foreclosures and sheriff's sales, hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills, and dozens of pending lawsuits, judgments, and Internal Revenue Service and mechanics' liens.
Through CREI and more than 35 other corporate entities, including Preet Allied Development and Creative Construction Management, the partners added only three buildings to the city landscape. One of them, 101 Walnut St. - 10 million-dollar-plus condo units - has been used primarily to pay subcontractors who were not compensated for their services on other projects.
Fearing they might never be able to collect from CREI, some contractors are considering an attempt to block Tuesday's scheduled sheriff's sale of the development company's signature condo building, the 40-unit American Loft at 712 N. American St. in Northern Liberties. Abington Bank - owed $15.1 million for three separate construction loans, according to the bank's first-quarter filing - foreclosed on the building Feb. 27.
The "upset" price - the minimum the bank will accept for American Loft - is $15,440,167.
Robert King, project manager of Anthony Biddle Contractors Inc., of Ambler, said that if the bank took the building back at the sale, "there is very little likelihood that we'll ever get paid the hundreds of thousands of dollars we're owed" for shoring up American Loft's foundation.
In addition, the Internal Revenue Service has placed a lien on American Loft, seeking more than $167,000 in back taxes from Lakhmna.
The remains of four other CREI projects lie within blocks of one another in Northern Liberties and Old City:
Across Brown Street from American Loft is Le 22, a "gated" townhouse development where, neighbors say, no construction work has been done in many weeks.
Two proposed developments - Q Tower at Second and Spring Garden Streets and Northern Life at 820 N. Third St. - appear to have been abandoned.
At Nouveau on New Street in Old City, there were only a half-dozen buyers when sales were halted last year. Eight units remain unfinished. After straining for months under the weight of utility-shutoff notices and a host of construction-related issues, the owners took control of the condo association.
In addition to other IRS liens against CREI's owners, lenders are foreclosing on corporate holdings, including some condo units the developers owned at 2001 Hamilton St.
Neither Lakhmna, Singh, or Grewal has responded to numerous requests for interviews. Few in the Philadelphia real estate community seem to know them well, and so declined to be interviewed about them.
For building contractors seeking lucrative work in the city, signing on with CREI in the boom years did not seem all that risky, though the firm's three principals were relative newcomers to the local scene.
Observers of the housing market here estimate that CREI acquired $53 million worth of property during the peak of its activity, including $2.6 million for the site of American Loft, a high-end midrise project designed by star architect Winka Dubbeldam.
Published interviews and public relations releases about CREI's three principals describe previous business experience owning gas stations, car washes, convenience stores, and restaurants.
Lakhmna, 38, has said in published interviews that six generations of his family have been builders in India, that he came to the Philadelphia area in 1993, and that he was building in the Caribbean and had projects on the boards in Brooklyn, Florida, and Germany.
He opened a gas station in South Jersey in 1997. Singh, 44, also a gas station owner there, met Lakhmna in 2001 and became his first partner.
Lakhmna received an M.B.A. from Drexel University's LeBow College of Business in 1995. In 2006, the LeBow newsletter reported, Lakhmna was recognized as one of Philadelphia Business Journal's "40 Under 40" winners and was honored by the Minority Business Development Agency for his development efforts.
Grewal, 40, is Lakhmna's brother-in-law. He was associated with a restaurant called Grillfish in Miami before moving here in 2004.
Currently, scores of contractors, as well as suppliers of windows, doors, concrete, steel, appliances, and other materials, are suing either the developers or one of their associated companies.
Swederski Construction Co., of Voorhees, has a $19,980 mechanics' lien on a unit at 101 Walnut St. Billarry Steel Fabricators, of Philadelphia, obtained judgments totaling $45,000 on May 14 in a case that lasted for 14 months.
Direct Air L.L.C., a Philadelphia plumbing and heating company, obtained a judgment in February for almost $62,000 owed.
Adrian Martini, a member of the Nouveau condo association, said in a recent interview that he knew of other, smaller contractors - including at least one electrician and a landscaper - who had either gone out of business or were close to it because CREI had not paid them.
Although Philadelphia Common Pleas Court has repeatedly ruled in contractors' favor in cases involving CREI, many now fear they will never be paid the hundreds of thousands of dollars owed them - in some cases, for more than three years.
"We are having to spend thousands of dollars in legal costs for judgments that we will never get the money for," said Edward DeAngelis, president of EDA Contractors, which installed the roof on Nouveau and refuses to provide a guarantee for it until it is paid the $35,000 balance of its $100,000 contract.
Biddle Contractors had worked on CREI's 101 Walnut project and had been paid on time, project manager King said. So when American Loft came up, the company agreed to participate.
It took a while to get the first payment, King said. Then the checks stopped coming.
"Still, we finished because we were committed to do the job," he said.
Biddle even agreed to do extra work to get American Loft finished, and was paid $20,000 for it.
But the balance owed for the foundation work was never paid, King said.
"They did give us a condo unit in American Loft," he said Wednesday. "But what good does that do us when the bank owns the building."
Is now a good time to buy real estate? Have we hit bottom? What do the somewhat contradictory numbers really mean? Join Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens in a live chat Wednesday at noon on www.philly.com as he talks about the local housing market. EndText