Deal for City To Buy Lot On Union Avenue For Emergency Services Killed By Attorney General




Link To Full Document: yeshiva-belz-ag-determination-01-17-17

In 2014 the city entered into a complex transaction to purchase land out Union Avenue to provide emergency services to the eastern plateau.  The land is owned by the congregation of Yeshiva Pardes Yosef D’Chasidei Belz which is defined under New York law as a religious organization.  The transaction involved the city simultaneously selling the parking lot adjacent to the Algonquin Building, the Collamer parking lot, and acquiring the Union Avenue property.

In order for a religious institution to sell property, New York State law requires the approval of the Attorney General. 

Attorney Michael Toohey represented Joel Aronson, the president of the congregation, in its petition to the Attorney General. 

In a letter to attorney Michael Touhey dated January 17, 2017, Assistant Attorney General Nathan M. Courtney, on behalf of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman denied the petition.

AAG Courtney wrote that “undisclosed in the petition is the fact that the Yeshiva’s sale of the Union Avenue lot to the city was made contingent on the sale, by the city, of a valuable piece of real estate to a related third party.  During the course of our investigation of this matter we learned that a third party, The Algonquin Building LLC (LLC), owned by Ben Aronson (“Ben”), Joel’s son, was a party to a three way transaction among the yeshiva, the city, and the LLC involving the Union Avenue lot, as well as the parking lot next to the Algonquin Building, owned by the LLC, on Broadway, known as the Collamer Lot (‘the three way transaction). ”  

As I read this, the Attorney General was troubled by the fact that the petition failed to divulge that the president of the congregation (the formal petitioner) was negotiating a deal that would benefit his son who would personally acquire a valuable piece of property if the deal went through.

As I read the letter, the sale must be based on benefiting the religious organization or its members.  It cites the following Federal code,

“[a]n organization is not organized or operated exclusively for one or more of the purposes specified in subdivision (i) of this subparagraph unless it serves a public rather than a private interest.  Thus to meet the requirements of this subdivision, it is necessary for an organization to establish that it is not organized or operated for the benefit of private interests such as designated individuals, the creator, or his family, shareholders of the corporation, or persons controlled directly or indirectly, by such private interests.”

Basically, it appears that Joel Aronson and the congregation was selling the property in a way that would benefit Mr. Aronson’s son and the Attorney General did not see how this sale fit into the religious mission of the congregation.

As noted by this opinion, denying this petition puts an end to the sale of the Union Avenue property for the proposed public safety building meant to provide emergency services.

At the time of the original agreement there was a very heated controversy with a variety of accusations about the legality of the city’s role and whether or not the deal made financial sense.  A local group led by among others, my friends Tom and Bill McTygue and Raymond Watkin, went to court to block the deal unsuccessfully.   I must say that in one of the early posts of this blog, I pointed out that the relationship between the Aronsons and their congregation seemed problematic and was the weakest link in this business.  Even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut.


25 thoughts on “Deal for City To Buy Lot On Union Avenue For Emergency Services Killed By Attorney General”

  1. Mike Mulholland at Ch 13 WNYT broke the story on Thursday, Jam. 26.
    John K. has the full story, in detail, on Friday, Jan. 27. Thank you John.
    Nothing in our “local” newspaper.
    This dirty deal was doomed from the start. It was a proposed “sweetheart deal” by none other than Commissioner Chris Mathieson. He is to blame for the city not having a third firehouse/EMT station on the east side. There were other parcels of land available, and he should have checked them out, or had his Deputy in charge of finding a more suitable location. The swamp land was a poor choice. An environmental investigation would have squashed (squished?) the use of that wetland location. This was a lose-lose deal.


    1. Henry 37 knows little about that on which he his commenting. First of all, Mark Mulholland didn’t exactly break the story. I added an item to our agenda at last week’s Council meeting to announce that the Charities Bureau of the Attorney General’s office had reached a decision. The last minute announcement was made because we had just received the letter from the AG prior to the meeting. Check out the web cast.
      There was no ‘dirty deal’ or ‘sweetheart deal’. After searching high and low for a suitable property, we were offered the opportunity to buy a parcel that had a 7 + acre area of very dry land and a nearly perfect location. There were no other good options at that time. I know! We looked. The problem was that the owner would consider selling us the parcel only if we would sold him the Collamer lot which is next to his Algonquin Building. We hired an independent appraiser to establish the property values and, after much negotiation, the family agreed to accept the values of the City’s appraiser. This was no sweetheart deal.

      This would have been a win-win situation for the City, not a ‘lose-lose’, since had the Collamer lot development been accomplished it would have finally built out that section of Broadway to improve the business climate, provide more sales tax and put that property on the tax roles. The Union Avenue property was the only parcel out there that had 7+ above the 100 and 500 year flood plains. The swamp land that Henry37 speaks of encompassed the other 8- acres of the 14 + acre property. Henry37 seems to be employing ‘alternate facts’ to make his case.

      It is sad that it took so long for the AG’s office to make their ruling but, now that they have, we are finally unencombered by the resolution of Dec. 17, 2013 and the land transaction contracts approved on Aug. 5, 2014. Assuming that there is no appeal, we can finally move forward.

      Chris Mathiesen

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fact is you blew it… you are the poster child for what happens when the tail wag’s the dog,there were other options out there you admitted to it this past week…hopefully the AG will get to the bottom of this total misuse of the public’s money.


  2. Does this tax exempt religious entity have a house of worship on the property? Is this land actively being used by said religious organization or is this an investment opportunity for speculation? How does the city benefit regarding this special tax-exempt relationship?


  3. Does the good doctor really believe that an announcement at a council meeting equates to “breaking news” on a local TV station? A council meeting has how many attendees? Maybe 10-20 people? This is either an example of a Napoleon syndrome, or somebody who is out of touch with the public.


  4. “Napoleon syndrome.”
    Thanks Henry. You made my day.

    BTW–Dr. Dental touts the benefits of putting the old Presbyterian lot on the tax rolls but does not mention the tax exempt property in he swap deal. If taxable income is paramount, why not negate the exemption and collect the far greater revenue from the (dare I say) “yeshiva?” Baruch HaShem, eh? It’s all such “machen laben”.

    Brings me back to the old neighborhood. Too bad there are those in elected office that don’t have a clue…and that is exactly, on which our boys from Brooklyn are counting. The likes of some in denial were supposedly routed during the great urban renewal of the 60’s, remember?

    Ah, but guess what, boys? “We’re baaaaaaack!” (lol)
    With this crew at the helm…Toga’s ripe for the pickins.
    And, “day ain’t dat smart.” Maybe it’s just a matter of pronouns…


  5. Folks. Please check your facts.

    The property on Union Avenue has no tax exempt status. Not now and not previously. For it to have a religious tax exemption, it would have to be used for a religious purpose. The parcel next to the Aronson property has a religious exemption because it is a church.

    An announcement at a Council meeting becomes part of the public record. Council meetings are monitored by members of the public and the news media.

    There were NO other good options for the location of the third Fire/EMS station at the time that the Aronsons presented their proposal.

    I would be happy to meet with each of you personally to discuss these issues but, in the mean time, please stop using bogus information to support your stance in this issue.

    Chris Mathiesen

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Commissioner Mathiesen.
      You have my support.

      Hey ALL!
      Let’s keep the conversation going on these issues without taking (too much) personal offense; et alia.
      I implore everyone contributing; to use a little levity and contribute relevant feedback, encouraging participation and dialogue to that end. As sarcastic as I read (so says the bride lol), note that it’s in the best interest of the blog.
      Heck, there is no feedback-based medium left.
      Thanks, John!

      By the way…
      Dr. Mathiesen has proved to be one of the more accountable eggs in the basket.
      Let’s show him some support.

      And watch those pronouns!


      Liked by 1 person

  6. It should be noted here that while some try to unfairly target Commissioner Mathiesen, every other commissioner was on board with this deal. The words by Chris are true here, as I have discussed this with other council members as well. My only ‘problem’ with this was the loss of parking downtown (I generally have to use that lot myself when I go to city hall – even having a handicap tag! – because of the limited parking.

    That said – how about we all work together for new new city hall that is actually accessible for all, and would serve the needs of our city for years to come?


  7. Breaking news:
    The Saratogian broke this story today, 14 days after the letter was received by Toohey, and after Mathieson “broke the story at the council meeting”. There’s your levity.


    1. Do people even bother with the Saratogian anymore? Let’s be real here: it’s readership level is on par with the Salem Gazette now. It’s ALWAYS days behind on the news too. Why bother?


  8. Shara Burger was appointed city attorney in 2014 by Mayor Joanne Yepsen, she resigned later that year over legal disagreements regarding a controversial proposed land swap.

    Commissioner Mathiesen how does this sound now that the NYS AG agrees with Miss Burger. This is exactly what Trump did to the attorney general over the refuge ban. This happens way too many times in government, the messenger is shot.


    1. Disgusting Democrat:
      First reality fact check. She was not fired she resigned. Your statement is slanderous aginst Ms Burger. She should sue you or John Kaufman for publishing this factually inaccurate comment.
      If you know what the issue was that Ms. Burger objected to there is a serious leak in the five members of the council as this was discussed in executive session. I venture a guess that your informant goes by the initials MM or CM.
      I did read the AG opinion. It is consistent with what Attorney Shara Burger has said.


      1. Yes Sarah (NOT “Shara”) resigned. But she didn’t have much choice either. And I say that as a friend of hers. Sarah is a good person. No one is slandering her here or elsewhere. I’ve had many conversations with “MM” and “CM” and I can assure you that neither of them has ever said anything bad about Sarah even in discussions concerning her. Sometimes in business and politics things just don’t work out for whatever reasons, and you need to make a change. Opinions may differ, ect. But I don’t believe anyone thinks Sarah was ‘bad’ or ‘slandered’ her.

        And if YOU know what was said in an executive session, then you just might be pointing a finger at the wrong people…..


    2. For the record, I believe Sarah Burger did advise against the deal however (and I believe for one of the reasons it was shot down by the AG).


    3. Ms Burger exposed the rigged bidding scheme she had no choice but to resign or surrender her license… of the very few who has served the position of City Attorney who has a backbone!


  9. Good day everyone, and welcome to the ‘Deal or No Deal’ post game show, presented by Planet Arthur… Well, the deal did go down, but win or lose, we take notice of the three stars off the ‘game’:

    #3- NTS Attorney General’s Office: The AG snags the #3 slot by virtue of the inordinate amount of delay of game penalties take during the game. Many might think that given the crucial situation, they might have been quicker – but no, they held their snail’s pace for almost three years, earning tonight’s #3…

    #2 – Public Safety Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner: High risk, high reward. Had the land swap deal gone through, they were shoo-ins for the #1 slot… By writing the RFP in such a manner that only one respondent was possible, they die was cast. They threw the bomb, but it was a duck that floated for a great period of time, before being intercepted by the AG.

    ….And tonight’s #1 star is:

    #1- The Aronson’s: Indeed, they started very strong, pressing their perceived advantage. By getting the RFP written that certain way, they cleared the field of any possible competition – and almost walked away with a plum parcel on Broadway. The Aronson’s set things up as if they were playing Mega-Millions with 4 numbers already in their pocket, but weren’t able to convert. Still, the fact is that they played as if they had the best hand, and though they lost, it cannot detract from the fact that they played the game the best. It just wasn’t their day – er, years.

    (Except its not a game to the people of the Eastern Ridge).

    Well, that’s it from here. Coming up next: Charter Commission Claymation Death Match, sponsored by Justin’s Guided Tours of Bizzaro World. And we’ll see you right back here, after another episode of “Deal or No Deal.”


    1. Fantastic!
      That is exactly the kind of critical, creative writing we need.
      Carl Strock (Ol’ Gazette columnist) should be proud. Thank you Arthur the Magnificent!
      BTW– the price is right for the tickets for the show (winkwink).


  10. I loved the part where it says the Aronsons first asked $700,000 for the swamp.
    I wonder what price tag they will put on it now?


  11. I liked Sarah Burger. She worked well with us when we were being attacked for changing the traffic regulations during the racing season at the Clubhouse Gate. As I have stated publicly a number of times, it was suggested by all five members of the City Council that Sarah be replaced after 8 months of service as City attorney. There was no one issue that motivated this decision and her letter of resignation citing her disagreement with the decision to pursue the land transactions may have been entirely a coincidence.

    The position of City attorney is not an easy one. It is uniquely difficult to represent all five members of the Council at the same time when they are following divergent paths on sensitive issues. As I stated during our primary election debate, Sarah turned out not to be a good fit for the position. That is not a reflection on her legal abilities or her character. All five members of the Council decided that the relationship simply was not working.

    Neither Sarah nor any other attorney that we heard from before or after the approval of the land transaction contracts expressed to us the opinion that the agreements would be undermined because of an AG Charities Bureau denial. Most of the attorneys looked upon the Charities Bureau approval as a routine measure that could take up to 6 months at the most and was mostly a formality. Personally, having now read the decision, I can understand the Charities Bureau perspective.

    Chris Mathiesen


    1. No Offense but a guilty conscience needs no accuser! My hope is that the AG pursue’s a criminal investigation into the PS’s administrative staff,mainly the Deputy without hesitating!


  12. Times Union, Sept. 11, 2014: “Sarah Burger abruptly resigned as city attorney Wednesday amid a political firestorm over a disputed land swap deal recently approved by the City Council, saying she wanted to protect her professional and personal integrity.”
    Yet Comm. Mathieson says “There was no one issue that motivated this decision and her letter of resignation citing her disagreement with the decision to pursue the land transactions may have been entirely a coincidence.”
    And, yes Sarah Burger did assist the Commissioner with the one-way traffic changes “at the Clubhouse gate”. The changes dramatically affected Siro’s restaurant and they sued the city. Instead of making drastic changes on that street, maybe there were other solutions, like timing the traffic light better, or posting a traffic person.
    Is the Commissioner using alternative facts?


    1. The Times Union has a history of using “alternative facts,” vide the widely discussed article on the proposed renovation of the Finance Department:

      In fact, the Hearst newspaper empire, owner of the TU, was made largely on the basis of one of the most notorious fake news stories of all time, the alleged sinking of the battleship Maine by Spain, widely promoted by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal:

      As mentioned in the above link, a more sober “New York Times report on the event had also been sent across the international news wires along with an incredibly detailed account of the sinking of the Maine. The Times account even went into the technical aspects of the ship’s coal storage and ventilation systems, the possible origin of the blast that sunk the ship.”

      Ironically, TU editor Rex Smith will be giving a talk on “Fake News” at an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters on Monday, February 27th. Yes, it’s always good to hire an expert.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. I guess we all could pick out a certain news story, from a given newspaper, and elaborate on the merits/truth/alternative facts. I happened to pick out the story that applied to Sarah Burger’s departure, and the reason for her departure. If someone can prove to me that it is fake news, I will ask Mr Kaufman to take down my post.
    I noticed the Commissioner did not complain about my posting.


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