On the afternoon of June 18, 2018, a storm tore through Poughkeepsie. From its office in Albany, the National Weather Service recorded “damaging winds” of up to 80 miles per hour—the same level as a category one hurricane. In Poughkeepsie, the winds uprooted trees and tore down their limbs, but the worst was reserved for Academy Street, just off Main. The structurally unstable seven-story building at 19 Academy had its top three floors nearly blown off, sending debris raining down upon neighboring 15 Academy, a building housing Hottie’s Boutique. The impact of the debris collapsed the roof of the women’s clothing store, trapping proprietor Rotanya Hargrove beneath the rubble. The only signs of Hargrove were her voice calling out for help and a few of her fingers emerging from the wreckage, as reported by the Poughkeepsie Journal. She remained trapped for more than four hours before being rescued by a team of firefighters from Poughkeepsie, neighboring Arlington, and New York State.
The building at 19 Academy is owned by Eric Anderson, a developer who works behind various limited liability companies. Anderson currently has at least five applications before Poughkeepsie’s planning board; according to Marc Nelson, city administrator, the building collapse will not affect Anderson’s other local projects, as “they’re unrelated.” New York State is also taking a similar tack: Just shy of the one-year anniversary of 19 Academy’s collapse, a state agency awarded Anderson the redevelopment of Beacon Correctional Facility, a project with millions of dollars in public funding.
According to records from the NYS Division of Corporations, Anderson can be tied to at least 14 limited liability companies incorporated in New York State, most with names beginning with “POK” or “Urban Green” and registered at the same mailing addresses in New York City. County records reveal that these LLCs own at least 13 properties in Poughkeepsie, which were purchased from April 2017 to February 2019 for as little as $50,000 and as much as $614,000. The property at 19 Academy was purchased by POK Academy, LLC in July 2017 for $50,000.
Anderson’s buying spree came amid Poughkeepsie’s building boom, which began in 2016. As The New York Times reported, nearly 1,300 residential units have been completed or are in the works—a dramatic expansion for a city of only 12,000 units. Property prices are also on the rise, with single-family homes going for over 16 percent more in 2018 than in the previous year.
Prior to arriving in Poughkeepsie, Anderson also worked in New York City and Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he faced lawsuits connected to his projects. In 2014, Urban Green Management was sued by investment partners who alleged that Anderson misappropriated funds from commercial and residential properties in Manhattan and the Bronx; the case remains active. And in 2016, another investment partner sued Anderson himself for fraud and mismanagement of more than $10 million; the case was discontinued in 2017.
If a Building Falls in Poughkeepsie…
The collapse of 19 Academy resulted in two new lawsuits against Anderson and his LLCs. Among the defendants of the first, filed by Hargrove, are POK Academy, LLC and Urban Green Builders, LLC. Hargrove’s complaint asserts that, because Anderson repeatedly admitted in interviews with the Poughkeepsie Journal that the building at 19 Academy had structural problems, the defendants “needlessly endangered the safety of the public by permitting this structurally unsafe building to remain in an unsafe and dangerous condition.” Although no dollar amount is cited in the complaint, Hargrove is seeking damages covering her injuries, livelihood, anguish, litigation, and interest. The case is ongoing, with the next court date coming up on February 25.
(Hargrove’s lawyer, Michael E. Greenspan, failed to respond to multiple requests for comment from The River.)
The second lawsuit was filed by the City of Poughkeepsie and also names POK Academy and Urban Green Builders as defendants. The complaint puts the cleanup cost of 19 Academy’s collapse at $590,000, which the city originally bore, then sought from the building owner.
“The demolition was done in very short order,” says Nelson. “It was obviously an immediate risk to public safety, so we got it cleaned up. And of course that was an expensive effort, so there were negotiations and proceedings to make sure that the city’s interest was protected … to make sure that we were compensated for the monies that we expended to get that property cleaned up so quickly.”
In a settlement reached earlier this month, POK Academy agreed to compensate Poughkeepsie $76,124.70 in cash and $495,600 in liens against four other properties owned by POK 372 Main, LLC in the city. The agreement also suggests that Poughkeepsie will no longer “[refrain] from processing certain applications related to properties owned, managed, and/or otherwise controlled by the related parties.”
(Contacted by The River, Anderson declined to comment for this article.)
As of mid-February, Anderson has at least five applications before Poughkeepsie’s planning board under his own name or various “POK” or “Urban Green” LLCs. These plans include the conversion of a historic church into an event space and housing; two- to three-story additions to four buildings along Main Street, creating a theater and 79-room hotel; and the renovation of 19, 21, and 23 Academy Street into a 32-unit apartment complex with three ground-floor retail outlets and a unspecified “cultural facility.” The projects have received at least $2.6 million in public funding and are seeking more. Far from reconsidering these applications in light of 19 Academy’s collapse, Poughkeepsie officials are hoping that development pushes ahead faster.
“At this point, the city’s not in a position to hold up other responsible applications for other unrelated projects based on the events surrounding the building collapse, particularly because we’ve resolved the issue of recoupment of the expenses and so on,” says Nelson. “We’re disappointed that plans don’t seem to be moving forward there as quickly as they should be.”
(Both Nelson and Natalie Quinn, Poughkeepsie’s planning director, declined to comment on the specifics of any of Anderson’s applications.)
Further south in the Hudson Valley, in Beacon, 19 Academy’s collapse has likewise failed to reverberate. In May of 2019, Empire State Development, the agency tasked with the redevelopment of former public facilities, awarded Urban Green Food the right to redevelop Beacon Correctional Facility, a 39-acre, 22-building property, along with up to $6 million in state funding. Urban Green Food’s proposal for the site includes a 103-room hotel, restaurant, nursery, and other businesses, plus a community garden, athletic facilities, and classrooms.
“After a longstanding effort to revitalize the vacant Beacon Correctional Facility site, we’re pleased that a project proposal that would fulfill many of the goals and priorities outlined by the Beacon and Fishkill communities is moving forward,” says Adam Kilduff, ESD assistant press secretary. “We are working with local stakeholders to refine the site plan and look forward to starting the public environmental review process in the near future.”
With regard to the collapse of 19 Academy, ESD has little to say. Neither the agency’s routine vetting of applicants nor its lawyers’ inquiry into the lawsuits resulting from the collapse yielded any concerns about Urban Green Food or its proposal. Despite Hargrove’s case still being active, ESD deemed the suits to have been adequately handled. Urban Green Food’s proposal was selected among other plans by agency staff according to their standard rubric, along with input from an advisory committee of officials from the State Legislature, Dutchess County, Beacon, and Fishkill.
(Anthony J. Ruggiero, Beacon’s city administrator, deferred all questions about Urban Green Food to ESD.)
While further planning and environmental review will keep redevelopment from beginning at Beacon Correctional Facility for at least another 18 months, the horizon for any construction at 19 Academy appears much further off. Anderson’s original plan for the site, submitted two months before the collapse, proposed combining it with two neighboring buildings to turn the lot into an apartment complex with ground-level retail. Since then, he’s submitted a new plan for just one of the neighboring buildings, to create 30 residential units atop first-floor office space. Despite the hopes of Poughkeepsie officials, it seems that the space where 19 Academy once stood will remain a void of overgrown grass strewn with rubble in the heart of the city for some time yet.
Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.