Tension rises between tenants and new owner of Montclair’s Hawthorne Towers
GOOGLE STREET VIEW
A number of tenants of Montclair’s Hawthorne Towers apartment complex have come forward with complaints about the new owner of the building and have met with a township councilman to air their concerns.
In late March, Hawthorne Towers, a 133-unit rental building, was sold to Rockledge Ventures LLC for $38 million after 55 years with the same owner.
Since the purchase, the new CEO and manager, Marc J. Watkins, has been making adjustments to the property in the form of construction, renovations and new leases under Montclair’s new rent stabilization ordinance.
The changes have some residents up in arms.
“This is a very tight community,” said Stu Zakim, a 12-year Hawthorne Towers resident and tenant spokesperson. “We look out for each other, and he’s basically come in and is disrupting people's lives, turning [Hawthorne Towers] upside down without communicating his plans in any way, shape or form.”
Tenants didn’t always feel this way, Zakim said. Early in the building’s purchase process, Watkins held a “mini town hall” in the lobby where he introduced himself to the tenants, laid out his vision for the building’s future and painted an overview of his plans.
“I solicited feedback from the tenants of things that were important to them and I listened,” Watkins said. “And I think that's important.”
At the time, Zakim said, the meeting gave the tenants, many of whom are senior citizens and long-term residents, a sense of security. But almost immediately after the meeting, some tenants were met with changes that upset them.
One benefit the tenants of Hawthorne Towers were used to having was a door that was staffed 24 hours a day. The door attendants assisted tenants with signing in, carrying groceries to their rooms, organizing delivered packages and letting in emergency crews in the event of an emergency.
Watkins decided to remove the 24-hour door attendants and replaced the services they provided with the installation of a new package room and a high-tech intercom system called Butterfly XM.
Butterfly XM is an intercom system that has been installed in 800 different locations throughout New Jersey, including six buildings in Montclair, according to Butterfly XM. The system is intended to allow package companies, tenants and emergency personnel to access the front door and the package room of the building.
Watkins said the property manager, Treasure, has set up individual meetings with tenants and emergency personnel and held a building-wide meeting to explain the system.
“Treasure, our property manager, has reached out and has given a code to all of the main delivery services,” he said. “All of these companies, when they come to the front door, have a permanent code that they can enter on the touchpad to get not only in through the front door, but also into the package room.”
Watkins also explained, if there were ever an issue getting into the building, all a delivery service person has to do is hit the ‘Management’ button in the system, and it will contact the property manager for access.
Although the new system has multiple layers of operation, some residents find it to be troublesome. Delivery service companies are leaving packages outside the package room in the building’s foyer, Zakim said. Then some of the tenants wind up moving the packages found in the foyer to the package room.
Watkins says this is a delivery company issue, not a system issue.
“Ultimately, these carriers themselves are responsible for reaching out to the appropriate recipient, and often do not,” he said. “This is a problem across the entire country, not specific to Hawthorne.”
For Zakim, the elimination of the door attendants is more than just an operational issue, it takes away a history for long-term tenants.
“The loss of the door people was like [losing] the string that ties us all together,” he said. “That’s where you found out what was going on, that’s where you got the gossip, all kinds of stuff, and [Watkins] just came in with an agenda, and us be damned, he doesn’t really care if we like it or not.”
According to Montclair’s Building Office, a permit application for the new package room has been submitted. But the permit has not been issued yet because additional documents are required. Inspections are to be conducted when the permit is issued.
According to the township, the area should not be used until a permit is issued and all necessary inspections have been performed.
Another major concern some tenants are having with the new ownership is parking. On May 9, Montclair passed a rent control ordinance that allows landlords to raise both rent and parking fees up to 6% as a one-time increase when leases expire, and 4% thereafter. Rent and fees for seniors can be raised only 2.5%. Although rents have not been increased above the allowable amounts, renters are concerned with parking fee increases.
The previous building owner made deals with specific tenants about parking payments when they signed apartment leases, Zakim said.
The previous owner “would bury the parking costs into the rent, rather than breaking it out,” he said. “A lot of people's leases showed that they were not paying for their parking space, even though they were.”
However, Watkins believes that this isn’t necessarily the case.
“There's a few people who do not have a parking lease, who knew that they needed to sign a parking lease months ago, maybe years ago, who have not been paying for parking for months or years, who do not have parking included in their apartment rent, who now that we are signing new leases, all of a sudden, want to hold us to a below-market parking rent on a lease that doesn't exist,” he said. “That will not stand.”
Zakim said that he previously paid $50 a month for his parking spot in the garage. The new parking rates at Hawthorne Towers with a lease renewal are $85 for the upper parking deck and $125 for garage parking.
Another controversy that arose was the cleanliness of Hawthorne Towers’ pool. Zakim said, in the past, the pool had typically been cleaned in April to prepare for an opening on Memorial Day weekend and remained open until Labor Day. However, he said, this year, the pool was closed until about a month after Memorial Day.
“We had to call the Board of Health because it was green, full of algae, and nobody was gonna go in there,” Zakim said. “A bunch of residents ended up joining the town pool. Once again, that's a service that we were provided with that we're not getting any longer, like the door people.”
Watkins does not deny that there were issues with getting the pool cleaned and opened this year. He said this is the first building he has owned with a pool, and that they needed to purchase a replacement pump and other necessary components for the pool to make it usable. He said supply chain issues took longer than anticipated, which delayed the pool's opening day.
“When the pool was opened, it was safe,” he said. “It was sanctioned by the Montclair Health Department, it's monitored by the Health Department and it has been safe and great ever since.”
Councilman Peter Yacobellis has met with about 20 tenants to discuss their concerns. Together, the tenants, with the help of the councilman, made a list of 34 complaints under categories labeled legal issues, decline in service, health and safety and quality of life.
“There is a lot going on in the building both in terms of legacy issues that need attention, new issues arising from renovations the owner is doing and then some other concerns a few tenants have raised around rent increases and noticing,” Yacobellis said.
“I'm in the process of working through with Mr. Watkins directly, and confident, after speaking with him, that most items will either be clarified or resolved.”