The City of Camden has filed a lawsuit alleging that developer Carl Dranoff schemed to withhold $9 million owed to the city as part of his 2002 deal for tax breaks to renovate the vacant Victor Building into an apartment tower.
Lawyers for Camden claim in the suit filed Monday in Camden County Superior Court that Dranoff’s Victor Urban Development LLC agreed to pay the city a share of its gains from the 349-apartment Victor Building if they surpassed a certain threshold, but that the LLC failed to document its profits to avoid doing so.
The suit marks an escalation in a legal battle that’s raged between Dranoff and Camden since the Philadelphia-based developer asked the city to transfer the tax-break deal to Apartment Investment & Management Co., or Aimco, which had been under contract to buy the Victor Building.
Dranoff alleged in a separate lawsuit filed in June that Camden officials were in breach of a contractual obligation to process that transfer. Judge Noel L. Hillman of U.S. District Court in Camden is reviewing motions filed as part of that suit.
Camden “will not be bullied by threats or intimidated by those seeking to advance their own personal wealth at the cost of the taxpayers,” Mayor Frank Moran said in a statement Monday announcing the city’s complaint. “The city is committed to collecting every tax dollar owed to it.”
In a statement Tuesday, Dranoff Properties characterized the lawsuit as “nothing more than a willful and intentional, bad faith retaliation for the suit we were forced to file in federal court.”
“The city refused to even consider the request as it was required to do,” the company said. “It is Dranoff, not the city, who has been harmed, and intentionally so.”
Dranoff’s 2002 deal with Camden — part of the city’s urban revitalization efforts — exempted Dranoff’s Victor Urban Development from property taxes on the apartments for 30 years in exchange for an agreement to pay a much-reduced “service charge,” along with any “excess net profits,” the city’s lawyers wrote in the lawsuit.
The deal defined the excess profits as anything over 1.25 percent more than the developer’s mortgage on the project, according to the suit.
Denver-based Aimco had intended to buy the Victor Building for $71 million as part of a package deal comprising six properties in and around Philadelphia but had made the Camden purchase conditional on the tax break’s transfer, Dranoff’s lawyers said in his earlier complaint.
Aimco said last month in its quarterly earnings documents that it had terminated its deal for the Victor apartments “due to the lack of required approvals from the City of Camden."
Camden’s new claim accuses Dranoff and his companies of fraud, breach of contract, civil conspiracy, and other counts.
The city claims that Victor Urban Development neglected for more than 14 years to provide annual reports on the Victor project’s financial performance, as it had agreed to do under the terms of its 2002 deal to document excess profits owed to the city.
Victor Urban Development released a financial report covering 2002 through 2017 in March, shortly before Dranoff asked Camden officials to transfer the Victor tax deal to Aimco, but the documents included no excess net-profit calculations, prompting the city to declare the developer in default of its agreement, according to the lawsuit.
Based on subsequent financial disclosures by the developer, Camden officials deduced that excess profits owed the city were instead being retained by another Dranoff-controlled entity, Victor Associates LP, which was listed as Victor Urban Development’s tenant on a ground lease at the site, according to the suit.
A financial consultant for the city calculated that $9 million had been unjustly withheld, William M. Tambussi, a lawyer for Camden, said in an interview.
Camden also accuses Dranoff in its suit of stymieing the revitalization of a nearby vacant building known as Radio Lofts, which also had been part of the RCA Victor plant complex on the Delaware River waterfront, by clinging to redevelopment rights to the property that the city believes have lapsed.
The city would like to offer the building for redevelopment into some commercial use that could qualify for New Jersey tax breaks for job-creating projects, but Dranoff has held the building “hostage” by asserting his redevelopment rights to pressure officials into processing the tax-break transfer, according to the suit.
“The defendants have attempted to use valuable city property as leverage to pressure the city’s administration into complying with their demands,” Tambussi wrote in the complaint. Camden now seeks “to obtain legal relief — and substantial revenue — to which the city taxpayers are contractually and lawfully entitled.”
In his company’s statement, Dranoff said he “has met every obligation to the City over the past 14 years, paying over $2.8 million in taxes.”
“The idea that we received ‘excess profits’ is false and malicious," he said. "The city has no appreciation for the work I’ve done to revitalize the community and their vindictive actions will only undermine redevelopment efforts going forward.”