Where is Michael Bolla’s Lawsuit?
The doors of developer and real estate broker Michael Bolla’s 1835 rowhouse at 436 West 20th Street remain plastered with building notices over a year after a Daily News puff piece proclaimed it “one of the most perfectly restored homes in Manhattan.” On February 10, the Department of Buildings’ website indicated that the project was issued a Notice to Revoke its renovation permit.
In the year since this website began documenting his project’s problems, Bolla has succeeded in retaining new construction built without first obtaining required approvals, while pursuing a campaign of harassment and legal threat against ArchiTakes and of public disinformation in the press.
ArchiTakes’ experience highlights the risk run by legitimate neighborhood watchdogs: deep-pocketed plaintiffs can brandish groundless threats of lawsuits against them, aiming to buy silence through intimidation and the imposition of legal costs. Such plaintiffs run a risk of their own—that their targets will call their bluff and expose them for the bullies they are by publicly taunting them for failing to follow through on bogus lawsuits they have no hope or expectation of winning.
Bolla began his campaign of legal intimidation by petitioning the New York Supreme Court to force ArchiTakes’ original web host, Hostmonster, to abandon its anonymity agreement for the site. In papers forwarded to ArchiTakes by a cowed Hostmonster, Bolla’s sworn affidavit to the court reads: “It is material and necessary—flatly imperative—that I unmask this blogger so that I may diligently and vigorously protect my professional name and business interests by prosecuting a defamation action in the New York Courts.” His affidavit describes ArchiTakes’ statements as “lies,” and states, “[N]obody is interested in living in a property perceived to be constructed in violation of law.” Or actually built that way, one might add.
As part of the same set of papers, an affirmation for an Order to Show Cause Compelling Disclosure of Identity brought for Bolla by his lawyer, Jason Gabbard, of Gabbard & Kamal LLP, asserts that ArchiTakes engaged in defamation and caused material damages. As shown in the excerpt above, Gabbard may not know “impute” from “impugn” or “flaunt” from “flout” but he knows how to defame, telling the court that ArchiTakes’ coverage of his client’s violations and Department of Buildings audit are “purely wholesale lies.” Gabbard’s representations are affirmed by him “under penalty of perjury,” and dated June 17, 2010. The public record contradicts him: Bolla’s audit had already been posted on the Department of Building’s public website for over two months, since April 8, and Bolla had just addressed the June 8 public meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission asking to legalize a violation that had been brought to the Commission’s attention by ArchiTakes’ reporting. Further, as a prelude to filing, and in breach of rules governing lawyers’ conduct, Gabbard conveniently assumed ArchiTakes’ author wasn’t already represented by a lawyer and made direct contact, trying to elicit self-incriminating statements of Gabbard’s own devising.
Architakes was never asked to appear at the hearing on the petition held to decide its vital interests. After Hostmonster failed to contest Bolla’s prelitigation petition and without any adversary present to give the other side, Judge Joan Lobis issued Hostmonster this order to disclose the identity of ArchiTakes’ author “on the ground that such disclosure is necessary for the Petitioner to be able to serve a summons and complaint on such (currently anonymous) person or persons.” Bolla took the court’s time at public expense to obtain this order, then failed to use it for the “imperative” purpose he had represented, and for which the court expressly issued it. He instead used it for public relations, intimidation, and the censorship of free speech aimed at protecting the community’s interest.
On the PR front, Bolla used Judge Lobis’s order as fodder for a pseudo news piece that began appearing online under the alternate headlines, “Building Owner Wins Case Against Blogger” and “Ruling Sets Groundbreaking Legal Precedent in New York Real Estate Developer Michael Bolla’s Blogger Anonymity Case.” On one site it appears over the byline of Robin Dolch, a Rubenstein Public Relations VP. Dolch’s “article” spins Judge Lobis’s handwritten form into a full-blown legal vindication: “The outcome in real estate developer Michael Bolla’s case against a hosting company earlier this month has set a monumental legal precedent with the court’s recent ruling in Bolla’s favor.” It says ArchiTakes “falsely accused Bolla of infringing landmark laws” and quotes his standard line, “The claims the ArchiTakes blogger makes on his site are one hundred percent inaccurate.” (New York Times coverage of Dolch’s 2005 wedding to NPR’s Mike Pesca says she’s the daughter of a real estate executive and graduated with honors from the University of Virginia, home to the famed Code of Honor; with all of her advantages, this is the best work she can find?) Her piece further quotes Bolla as saying, “I’m happy that this process is coming to a close.” According to the court papers forwarded by Hostmonster, he swore to the Court that this would be the start, not the close. With Dolch’s help, he’ll just declare victory, slink off and no one will notice that he never stepped into the ring.
In the message above, Bolla’s lawyer, Jason Gabbard, uses Judge Lobis’s order to put muscle behind his threat against ArchiTakes’ next webhost, iPage: “I’d suggest you quash this site immediately and avoid potential liabilities that may flow from you hosting this site.” Gabbard tells iPage that ArchiTakes’ content is “flatly defamatory” and “tantamount to cyberstalking,” the latter being a criminal violation. Gabbard, another proud product of the University of Virginia, succeeded in bullying iPage into shutting ArchiTakes down, though he should have known the Communications Decency Act protects web hosts from liability arising from content provided by its subscribers. (Eric Goldman is a leading authority on the subject.) Gabbard also makes Judge Lobis’s order an occasion for a victory lap of a post on his firm’s website, called “Ending Internet Anonymity,” using it to advertise for more business and as an opportunity to link to a New York Post article whose author dutifully repeats his spoon-fed association of ArchiTakes with Skanks of New York, a nightclub hostess’s infantile slander site. As an occasional preservation watchdog, ArchiTakes needed anonymity to shield against reprisal from powerful vandals of the public realm, not to avoid accountability for slander. Piercing Architakes’ anonymity was not something Bolla pursued on principle. It gave him and his lawyer something they could wave as a court victory—because they sure weren’t going to take their bogus claims anywhere near an impartial tribunal. Last August 13, the day after ArchiTakes posted its second piece on 436 West 20th Street, Gabbard tweeted that “[o]ur firm is in process of drafting defamation suit.” Half a year has passed without papers being served. This tweet was followed a few days later by one in which Gabbard associated a Huffington Post article on shock jock Hal Turner’s conviction for making online death threats against federal judges to his own “Ending Internet Anonymity” piece on ArchiTakes. In doing so, Gabbard strongly implied ArchiTakes’ author was guilty of the same misconduct. If his firm’s website is intended to raise business, one has to wonder what potential clients will make of a corporate lawyer who can’t distinguish civil from criminal offenses.
In addition to telling Dolch that Architakes is “one hundred percent inaccurate,” Bolla told the New York Post its “claims” were “dead wrong and misinformed,” and in the court affidavit referred to earlier he swore they were “flatly untrue,” “demonstrably false” and “lies.” If that’s so, why won’t he dare sue?
Last week, real estate newsgroups reported that Bolla has joined Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate, to which he reportedly “takes along” his “famed Chelsea Mansion.” His profile on Elliman’s website touts an “in-depth understanding and experience” of the Building Department and Landmarks Commission and says he’s highly sought after by those “looking to infuse their process with his understanding of architectural period, space and regulations.”
Let’s take a look at the project Bolla will take along with him to Elliman:
Putting his mastery of architectural space to work, Bolla recently placed the dense year-round cover of a fir tree over his restoration’s alarming fissures and displacement.
The rear “dormer” originally approved by the Landmarks Commission now runs the full width of the house and has the kind of barely perceptible slope known in the construction industry as a “flat roof.” One would never guess that the Landmarks Commission’s permit insists “[t]he historic roof pitch will be maintained at all sides, thereby maintaining the historic profile of the roofline . . .” The 1835 house’s peaked brick gable is now a thin prop, its historic profile raised just to hold up not-so-architectural-period air-conditioning equipment and its support steel above the level of the roof ridge. As Bolla has jammed every possible cubic foot of space under the house’s rear roof, authenticity has succumbed to the money-grubbing real estate forces that the Landmarks Commission was created to defend against, from its origins in the outrage over Penn Station’s demolition. Bolla seems intent on creating a penthouse that will earn the $37,500 a month rent he has asked for it. He received a Landmarks violation for his oversized dormer, but had it reversed in a public meeting where he claimed its size was somehow necessary to stabilize the building. ArchiTakes obtained a recording of this meeting. On it, Landmarks Commissioner Margery Perlmutter says in Bolla’s presence that the dormer he has illegally overbuilt “actually looks better now,” after which she can be heard to laugh. Why follow regulations when the regulators will pat you on the back for breaking them and share a friendly chuckle over it afterward? (Perlmutter was appointed to the Commission over the objections of the Historic Districts Council, which was concerned about a conflict of interest in her separate role as a registered lobbyist to the Commission, for hire to developers.)
ArchiTakes posted this photo of a new skylight at 436 West 20th Street last October 7th. Like its dodgy new lot line windows, the skylight helps Bolla’s penthouse deliver what its marketing material promises, “garden and sky views from every angle.” It appears to have been built without approval from the Landmarks Commission and without having been filed at the Department of Buildings. The Department’s website indicates that a violation was issued for the skylight on October 20 but that it was “cured” on November 30. Though repeatedly questioned by Architakes, a Department spokesperson has been unable to say how the violation was cured without removal of the skylight. Last week the Landmarks Preservation Commission issued Bolla a Warning Letter for “Alterations to the roof in noncompliance with” earlier permits. The Department of Buildings’ website now lists a Landmarks Violation for the project with the same date as this Warning Letter, February 23.
In response to ArchiTakes’ queries about the project, a Department of Buildings spokesperson today wrote of Bolla’s case: “On February 10, 2011, the Department put the applicant on notice that the Department would revoke the permits issued to do general renovation work on the building after a Department audit earlier this year found that the professionally-certified application and subsequent amendments filed did not comply with the building code and zoning resolution. Specifically, the Department found problems with the proposed installation of new lot line windows, the new steel structure at the attic level of the building and the rear yard balconies.”
Will Bolla again have his work retroactively approved, showing that the game is won by those who build without permission and then dare the authorities to impose the substantial cost of undoing the brick and mortar reality they defiantly created? Or will our civic guardians stand their ground against a developer known to defend his “process” with legal threats? We’ll keep you posted.
More on 436 West 20th Street:
Buying Michael Bolla’s Chelsea Mansion for Dummies, October 19, 2012
The Seamy Side of 436 West 20th Street, October 7, 2010
Chelsea Mansion: The Art of Fiction, August 12, 2010
436 West 20th Street Rises Above the Law, March 18, 2010