Lawsuits, code violations, tenant complaints: Clashes between developers and municipalities aren't uncommon, but the years-long dispute between Abington and the former Colonade apartments has been an especially acrimonious saga.
The agreement, ending a slew of lawsuits, erased past code violations and exempted the owners from installing fire sprinklers, which the township had said were necessary under building code. It also bars the parties from speaking negatively about each other.
Today, the owners of the upgraded 588-unit complex, renamed 100 York, declare it a success story. The township says the two buildings have passed all code inspections. But others question the buildings' safety.
"The building should have been sprinklered. There's no way around it," said a person involved in the negotiations between 100 York and Abington who requested anonymity due to the non-disparagement clause of the settlement. "The residents of Abington deserve better from their elected officials. The people living in that building certainly deserve better. Their lives are at risk."
Township Solicitor Michael Clarke said that the agreement was in the township's best interest and that the high-rise complex — two buildings, one 12 stories and one eight stories, at the heavily traveled intersection of Old York Road and Township Line Road — is safe for residents, neighbors, and first responders.
Commissioners voting against the settlement suggested that it didn't resolve all problems and could endanger occupants. Meanwhile, some township employees who maintained that the state building code required 100 York to upgrade its fire system are no longer in their jobs, and some residents say they still have complaints.
The settlement was passed by nine Democrats of 13 commissioners present, with Vice President Steven Kline, a Democrat, abstaining: He had been architect and project manager for the complex's renovation.
Between April 2017 and February 2018, Township Manager Michael LeFevre departed; Fire Marshal Ken Clark retired while still fighting 100 York's federal lawsuit against him; and Building Code Officer Lisa Erkert was moved to another department and filed a whistleblower lawsuit, claiming that she was demoted for appearing before a grand jury investigating the matter.
"Various township employees have made statements questioning the employment longevity of those who testified before the grand jury," she alleged in the lawsuit. "At least one witness was pressured into early retirement."
Her lawsuit is pending. And despite references to the grand jury, the scope of its investigation and no charges or report were made public.
Ken Clark declined to comment, citing the settlement's non-disparagement clause. His successor, John Rohrer, also declined.
In an interview, Jeffrey Cohen, the building owner and CEO of Metropolitan Properties of America, said he is proud of the renovated complex. "This building," he said, "is as safe as can possibly be."
The fire-safety clause in the settlement between Abington and 100 York reads: "The township further agrees that Old York's completion of the improvement project does not trigger the need for any additional work at the property, including but not limited to the installation of additional sprinklers or heat detectors, and/or the installation in individual apartments of smoke detectors that are interconnected with the fire-alarm system."
The state building code classifies construction projects into different levels, depending on the size and nature of the work. Only the more complex projects require existing buildings to add sprinklers. The owners of 100 York contended that their plans did not reach the threshold as defined by the code; the township initially disagreed. (The first and lower floors, where new apartments were built, were an exception; sprinklers were installed there.)
Regardless, said Ken Isman, a University of Maryland fire protection engineering professor, not putting sprinklers in high-rises is "not a good idea."
"Once a building gets to be more than five or six stories tall, it becomes extremely difficult for the fire department to actually fight a fire in the building," he said.
Sprinklers cost on average $1.35 per square foot. Owners often resist them, said Tracy Vecchiarelli, a National Fire Protection Association senior engineer, despite data and consensus among fire experts "that sprinklers are the best way to help suppress a fire and extend the time you have to get out of the building."
The 100 York fire safety system underwent a $3 million upgrade as part of the $30 million renovation, said Cohen. He and his associates said sprinklers weren't necessary.
"I always use the argument you could build a house that would withstand a nuclear bomb being dropped on it, but that doesn't mean that it makes sense to build that house," said Carl Primavera, Cohen's lawyer. "Putting water is, I guess, designed to protect the property, … but the whole key as I understand it has to do with getting people out."
The settlement was signed, he said, because the renovation was successful: "Everybody felt that whatever they needed to have happen in the litigation was able to be satisfied."
But not all agreed.
"Knowing that there may be some open violations and not knowing if these violations have been corrected, in good faith I cannot support this. … [It's] our responsibility to protect every citizen in this township," Commissioner Dennis Zappone said at the July meeting, voting no with the board's two other Republicans.
The settlement noted that then-fire marshal Clark did not concur with the fire-safety section. One resident at the public meeting, Lora Lehmann, said commissioners had voted against the citizens' interests:
"Many people … acted so badly and you're trying to settle it so that they would have no consequence whatsoever for their actions."
On Jan. 30 and Feb. 5 — months before the settlement — investigators found dozens of violations at 100 York, including water damage and dead smoke-detector batteries, according to a log and images obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News. Of 86 violations listed, 52 pertained to fire safety. No citations were issued, Clarke said.
Several 100 York residents interviewed said heating and cooling problems, water leaks and damage, and communication difficulties with management have continued.
In August, a leak dripped in the building lobby; above, a water stain spread several feet on each side of the second-floor door to an electrical room. Some fire doors were sitting open, one propped by a fire extinguisher.
"They've had problems with, well, just having things work in general," said resident Brett Schimmel, who said his ceiling had flaking and dark spots, which maintenance staff painted over.
Cohen, who bought the buildings in 1996, said the complex performs maintenance regularly.
MPA, Cohen's company, also ran the former Marquis in King of Prussia before it was sold; officials deemed it unfit for habitation after troubles in 2011. News reports and court filings show the company has fought lawsuits, been cited for fire-code violations, or had damaging fires at other properties in Michigan, Ohio, and Texas. "I can't even speak to those," Cohen said. "My goal is to focus on 100 York."
During a tour for a reporter last month, MPA managers highlighted the amenities center and a model apartment. Residents selected by Cohen for interviews praised the building.
"100 York was my rescue," said Felecia Burton, 51.
"The first year was a disaster," said Nestor Felix, 57. "But … everything has turned around and it's really a lovely place to live."
When Matthew Schuman, 28, decided to move into the renovated complex in August 2017, he said he expected the problems to be in the past. But within two months, he knew he didn't want to stay.
"I felt trapped," he said, recalling the unpredictable heating system warming his apartment to 85 degrees and other complaints.
Schuman moved out last month.
"I would never recommend that anybody I know, even tangentially, move in," he said.