Bharara subpoena shows interest in Albany lofts project
Arbor Hill project developers are big Cuomo donors
By Chris Bragg
Published 9:29 pm, Monday, May 16, 2016
The company behind a 22-unit affordable housing project in Arbor Hill is among nearly two-dozen firms mentioned in the federal subpoena served to Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s administration in late April, according to a person with knowledge of the document.
The subpoena seeks information about Swan Street Lofts LP, which is the company behind the renovated apartments called Academy Lofts at The Barn that opened to residents in December 2013. The project, located at North Swan and Second streets at the site of the former St. Joseph’s Academy, provides low-cost units for living and working residences for artists.
It is a project of the Albany Housing Authority, which hired Norstar Development, a company based in Ontario, Canada, that has significant operations in Buffalo and is led in the United States by Richard Higgins, a former state housing czar under Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Norstar helped secure financing for the project and was the general contractor, according to the executive director of the Albany Housing Authority, Steven Longo, who said his organization had not been subpoenaed or contacted by federal authorities.
Like Swan Street Lofts, Norstar is a company of interest in the federal subpoena, which asks about the actions of certain Executive Chamber officials on behalf of the listed companies. People and entities connected to Norstar have given Cuomo at least $157,000 in campaign donations since the beginning of 2010. Its efforts on this project were led by Lori Harris, who heads up the company’s Albany efforts, and herself is a former state governmental housing official.
Many of the companies in U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara‘s subpoena were clients of lobbyist Todd Howe, who is at the center of the probe. But Longo said Howe’s name “to the best of my recollection never came up during this job.”
No one has been charged or accused of any wrongdoing in the probe. Norstar declined to comment.
The project received help from several government sources. In the 2011 round of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s regional economic development council awards, the Albany Industrial Development Authority was granted $5.4 million in low-cost financing, and the Department of Homes and Community Renewal authorized $2.4 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credits. Empire State Development provided $4.5 million in Restore NY grant funding, and $350,000 in local support through the Federal Home Loan Bank and Historic Tax Credits, according to a 2013 news release from Cuomo’s office.
The $4.5 million from the Restore NY grant program was a bump from what was originally intended for the project. Money for the rehab of buildings on and around Henry Johnson Boulevard was shifted after the projects didn’t get off the ground, a move favored by Albany officials that eventually won the consent of Empire State Development Corp., the state’s economic development agency.
A firm representing the Swan Street LLC in the deal was Cannon, Heyman and Weiss, an Albany law firm that puts together the financing for affordable housing projects through
tax credits and incentives. The principals of Cannon, Heyman and Weiss and their firm have also been major donors to Cuomo, giving at least $125,000.
The Academy Lofts at the Barn project also includes 14,000-plus square feet of space for work studios, rehearsal suites, performance space, a digital media center, retail space and offices for the professional artist community, according to Cuomo’s press release.