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Williamsburg Developer Owned 'Firetrap' Where Philly Firemen Died

By  Gwynne Hogan and James Fanelli | August 2, 2016 7:33am 

 New renderings were released of an eight-story building that will have office space, retail and manufacturing space at 25 Kent Ave. in Williamsburg.  
25 Kent Ave.
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WILLIAMSBURG — The developers behind 25 Kent, a massive waterfront office complex, paid settlements of more than $1 million for their role in the deaths of two Philadelphia firefighters who were crushed by a collapsing brick wall while fighting a blaze in a building the company had allowed to deteriorate into a "firetrap," court records show.

The father-and-son landlord, Nahman Lichtenstein and Michael (Yechial) Lichtenstein, who recently got the city's thumbs-up to build the eight-story office complex, "violated virtually every regulation that got in their way," leading up to the fatal fire in 2012, according to a scathing 110-page report published by a Pennsylvania investigating grand jury.

The Lichtensteins and their business partner, Toby Moskovits of Heritage Equity, who was brought on as a financial adviser and held a $45,000 mortgage on the property, had to shell out at least $1.4 million in settlement money to the families of the two dead firefighters, court records show.

"Two Philadelphia firefighters died, and two were seriously injured, in a building that two Brooklyn real estate investors slowly turned into a firetrap," the panel found.

The investigating grand jury considered holding the owners criminally responsible, but ultimately cleared their company of wrongdoing.

The Brooklyn-based trio have a series of real estate interests in common including several East Williamsburg warehouses they're converting into office spaces and the soon-to-open Williamsburg Hotel on Wythe Avenue, according to multiple media reports.

In mid-July, their neighborhood-changing waterfront office building got the city's approval for rezoning and special permits that will allow owners to construct light manufacturing space instead of the medical offices the law requires. The agreement also reduced the number of parking spaces the company is required to build.

19 Kent Development LLC, their holding company, paid $158,709 to the powerful lobbyist James Capalino's Capalino & Company, one of de Blasio's top fundraisers, who was also hired to push through the controversial redevelopment of supportive housing for luxury apartment buildings. The sale of the Rivington House on the Lower East Side is currently being probed by the state. 

While the Lichtenstein Group and Heritage Equity are investing in new development all across North Brooklyn, in Philadelphia, the companies allowed their warehouse to fall into into dangerous disrepair. 

Neighbors of their North Philadelphia warehouse, a defunct stocking factory located at 1817 York St., repeatedly warned of falling bricks, more than 80 missing or broken windows, structural damage, holes in the walls and roof, missing doors and a gaping elevator shaft, according to the grand jury report. 

The building was easily accessible through open gates and doors and as a result, junkies had turned it into a squat, often setting fires to keep warm in the winter, neighbors said.

The inside of the building was littered with hypodermic needles, soda cans turned into crack pipes, soiled mattresses, opened and unopened canned goods and piles of clothes, according to the grand jury report. 

Meanwhile scavengers picked the building clean of valuable metals.

While refusing to maintain the building or keep it sealed so no one could enter, owners also "had not paid one dime" in real estate taxes or utilities in the three years they'd owned it and owed the city of Philadelphia $73,000 in delinquent taxes at the time of the 2012 fire, the report said.

In fact, the Lichtensteins owed a combined $400,000 in delinquent taxes at the abandoned factory and other properties across the city, according to a lawsuit against them.

All of that came to a head just after midnight April 9, 2012, the day after Easter Sunday, when an "unknown person or persons," set a fire inside the warehouse.

Blustery 35 mph winds stoked the flames and soon the whole building was consumed by fire, threatening to spread to nearby row houses and businesses on all sides.

"The fire was jumping across Boston Street to the north," first responder Battalion Chief James Renninger testified to the grand jury. "Homes were on fire. Boston Street looked like a war zone."

Another first responder described "softball-size embers" billowing up into the night sky, igniting satellite fires blocks away.

Forty fire companies responded within minutes, and worked to contain the fire on all sides. One team of firefighters who'd been dispatched to try to stop the blaze from spreading to a nearby furniture store were caught under a cascading ton of bricks when one of the warehouse's walls collapsed.  

Lt. Robert Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney were killed, and two others were injured.

"If they had secured the property, as they were legally required to do, or if they had developed the property, as they assured lenders they would, or if they had resold the property, as willing buyers asked them to, the fire might never have happened," the grand jury report reads.

The Lichtensteins and Moskovits paid about $1.4 million in a settlement earlier this year to Neary's family.

They also settled with the family of firefighter Sweeney, though the details of that settlement were redacted.

Lee Silberstein, a spokesman for Heritage Equity, declined to comment, but pointed out that Moskovits was not the owner of the Philadelphia building.

Attorneys who represented the Lichtensteins in Philadelphia didn't return a request for comment.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story said James Capalino's lobbying company Capalino & Company, was being investigated in the redevelopment of supportive housing for luxury apartment buildings. The Attorney General subpoenaed Capalino's records, but are not directly investigating him.