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Williamsburg's Austin Nichols Conversion Plagued By Mysterious Fires

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Jared Kushner’s real estate firm is one of the companies behind the conversion

The conversion of 184 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg from rentals into luxury condos is underway, but not without some major hiccups. Multiple sources tell Curbed that at least four different fires have been reported at the building. Residents have also complained that the construction work on site is uprooting their day-to-day lives, often intruding into occupied apartments as the developers restructure the existing units into condos.

Early last year, Kushner Companies (owned by real estate scion and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner) along with LIVWRK entered into contract to purchase the 338-unit building and convert it into the same number of condos. Pricing for those one- to three-bedroom condos was set between $800,000 and $3 million. Morris Adjmi was picked to design the conversion, along with several swanky amenities including a "jam room," and a 500-square-foot green wall in the lobby.

But despite reports that the conversion is moving along swiftly, residents, who wished to remain anonymous, told Curbed that only the lobby appears to have been completed so far, and the future for many of the existing tenants in the building is still up in the air.

The eight-story building was designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert, who was also responsible for the Woolworth Building, and constructed between 1914-1915. Until the 1950s, it served as the distribution center for the largest importing and manufacturing wholesale grocery business in the world at the time, Austin, Nichols & Co., according to the Museum of the City of New York.

Since the 1980s, the building has been used as a residential facility in one form or the other. In 2010, just as the economy was recovering from the housing market collapse, Jason Halpern of JHM Development decided to convert it into luxury rentals.

Many of the first group of tenants signed rent-stabilized leases, and they have been able to hold on to those places to the present day. But other tenants haven’t been so lucky: They became aware of Halpern’s intention to sell in January, and were officially told it would be sold to Kushner in May.

Some residents say they had an inkling of what was to come a couple of years ago. At the time, the landlord offered several tenants preferential leases, meaning they would get a discount on rent that year, but could potentially face a massive hike the following year.

That’s exactly what happened, prompting many people to leave—the number of existing tenants has dwindled significantly, but a core group still remains. They’re currently in negotiations with the new owners to buy their apartments at a fair price.

But on May 27, June 17, June 20, and June 29 four separate fires were reported at the building, the FDNY has confirmed to Curbed. The first was a rubbish fire on the fifth floor, followed by a fire on the fourth floor, then a stovetop fire on the fifth floor, and finally a fire in the trash room on the fifth floor. No injuries were reported in any of the incidents, and no more than 12 units or about 60 firefighters responded to these incidents. But the exact cause for all four is currently under investigation, according to the department.

Some tenants now believe that those fires were deliberately set on the developers’ behalf to get rid of the existing tenants. This rumor has not been substantiated, as the investigation is still ongoing, and the developers issued the following statement to Curbed: "Due to the ongoing FDNY investigation, it is inappropriate to comment further on the cause of the recent fires. Under no circumstances have we engaged in any harassment of tenants or unlawful efforts to drive them out of their homes, and to suggest otherwise is patently false."

On July 9, lawyers for the developers sent a letter (a copy of which was provided to Curbed) to tenants, in which they categorically state that management does not believe the fires were started by construction workers or any of the building’s personnel.

Instead, the letter points to the likelihood of the fires having been set by a former tenant. At a private meeting organized between the tenants and the management Wednesday night, management revealed their suspicions to tenants about the arsonist, who they believe to be the former roommate of a current resident.

The letter sent by the management’s attorneys to the tenants also reveals complaints of amenity areas being shut down for construction, the contractor entering existing tenants’ apartments without their presence or permission, the excessive amount of dust in the building, and water damage. The letter assures tenants that the management is working to address all the matters.

Amid all of this, at least 10 of the building’s condos have already gone into contract, according to StreetEasy. Several others are still on the market, but developers need to hit the 15 percent mark—meaning 51 of the 338 condos need to be in contract— before the condo conversion is declared "effective" by the New York State Attorney General’s office. Time will tell if they’re able to hit that point, or if the recent troubles will have any impact on the building’s progress.