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Developers allege Northeastern University land grab

Black developers claim ownership of key parcels

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Developers allege Northeastern University land grab
A group of black businesses and nonprofits are suing Northeastern University, alleging the university built the International Village dormitory (above) and a parking garage on land to which they had rights.

A group of minority businesses and nonprofits are facing off against Northeastern University in Suffolk Superior Court over the rights to land on which the university has built a 22-story, three-tower dormitory complex and 900-car garage.

The group of about 25 minority businesses and nonprofits known as Columbia Plaza Associates allege that Northeastern failed to honor a 1999 agreement when it built on land to which CPA held the development rights. In addition to the dorm and parking garage, the university has prepared plans to build a hotel. CPA members say they have not been sufficiently compensated under terms of the agreement.

Missing payments alleged

Kevin Cohee, chair and CEO of One United Bank, a member of CPA, spoke with the Banner at the courthouse on Tuesday. Cohee said that CPA had brought Northeastern onto the garage deal as a managing partner, with an agreement that the two organizations would split profits equally. Thus far, CPA has seen no money, while the university arranged to pay itself $100 per year for 60 years for operating the garage, Cohee said.

Under questioning by Henry Owens, a lawyer for CPA, Vincent Lembo, senior counsel and vice president for Northeastern and secretary to the board of trustees, said as well that Northeastern took no actions to create a joint venture with CPA on the garage development, despite an agreement indicating they were to do so.

Cohee said CPA also was not compensated for student dorms constructed on the parcel.

“Northeastern literally swindled the organizations out of the dorms and paid nothing, and out of the garage and paid nothing,” he told the Banner.

Lembo said on the witness stand that he was unaware of CPA having been paid for the garage or hotel and had not instructed the company hired to manage the garage to pay CPA a portion of the rent.

Authorization questioned

In 2007, the university amended its master plan, including revising language around portions of Parcel 18. Lembo said he was uncertain if he had been aware at that time that CPA owned development rights to the land, although he agreed when questioned that the document did indicate CPA and Northeastern owned the parcel.

During questioning, Owens questioned Lembo’s attempts to secure CPA’s buy-in on the hotel project. According to Lembo, his communication with CPA involved frequent contact with a handful of CPA members, primarily Kenneth Guscott, and also, at times Paul Chan and William Chin, and then, starting in 2008, John Cruz.

Owens asked why Lembo believed Guscott was authorized to speak on behalf of all of CPA’s organizations — which was not a sole proprietorship — and suggested Lembo’s role obligated him to get clear evidence of this before acting. Among Lembo’s responsibilities is signing all legal documents for the university, including those involved in the land development deals, he said. Lembo admitted that Northeastern did not seek written confirmation that any of the members he spoke with had authority to represent the group. In 2009, some membership also changed within the CPA.

To ensure CPA was involved, Lembo said the university instructed Newcastle Hotels and Resorts, a firm engaged to prepare the hotel proposal and financing, to involve CPA — although he did not specify in what capacity.

“We told them we wanted CPA in the hotel deal and that they had to work out some arrangement with CPA in terms of developing the hotel,” he said.

Columbia Plaza Associates was formed in 1986 as part of the city’s Parcel-to-Parcel linkage program. The developers built a $700 million, 37-story office tower on Lincoln Street in Chinatown and secured the rights to develop on Roxbury’s Parcel 18 under the linkage program, which was aimed at spurring development in Boston’s neighborhoods.

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