Oct. 8--Less than 14 months after a devastating apartment blaze along the Conshohocken riverfront set back one of the nation's most successful revivals of an aging town, a $36.3 million settlement has been reached to end all fire-related litigation.
Of that, $27 million will go toward rebuilding the two destroyed Riverwalk apartment buildings, which housed 189 units. The remainder will be shared among the displaced tenants, with amounts depending on individual losses.
The complicated agreement among developers, construction companies and insurers is subject to court approval, expected this month.
"This is an unprecedented result in such a short period of time," Robert J. Mongeluzzi, who represented tenants who filed suit within days of the Aug. 13, 2008, fire, said at a news conference yesterday.
The Riverwalk complex consisted of four occupied buildings. At an adjacent site owned by developer J. Brian O'Neill, a building known then as the Stables at Millenium was under construction. That was the source of the fire.
In an interview after the news conference, O'Neill, who has been instrumental in Conshohocken's revival, said he was so anxious to see the town recover that the day after the blaze, he offered to buy back Riverwalk for $80 million. JP Morgan Asset Management, to which he had sold it two years earlier, declined the offer.
O'Neill said the speed of the settlement was unprecedented, noting that litigation stemming from the 1991 Meridian high-rise fire in Philadelphia took 12 years to settle.
"I'm here to close the book on a tragedy that I hope will never occur again," he said.
O'Neill, who estimated the overall damage to the three sites at $70 million, said he had wanted to get the suits settled quickly, saying, "That was our objective from Day One."
In April, a Montgomery County Court judge ordered the parties to negotiate an agreement. The settlement, brokered by mediator James R. Melinson, involves suits filed in both federal and Montgomery County courts.
Even by mediation standards, "it was swift resolution," said Sandra Schultz Newman, a former state Supreme Court Justice who is now in that line of work herself.
Former tenants who attended the news conference said they were pleased with the outcome. "We didn't expect a settlement so quickly," said Paul Orlkine, 74, a real estate agent who now lives in Lafayette Hill. "We had a big loss."
The settlement, however, won't cover everything: "The memories, and the pictures and wedding albums, we will never be able to recover that."
The District Attorney's Office blamed the fire on a spark from a welder's torch at the Millenium site. Under the settlement, however, no party is blamed for the fire. While it was a "monumental tragedy," O'Neill said, "it was an accident."
The construction companies performing work at the site would be responsible for the bulk of the settlement money, said Patrick Howard, an attorney with Mongeluzzi's firm. The biggest share, about $16 million, would be borne by Cavan Construction Co. of Aston.
While it was "impossible to determine the cause of the fire," said Cavan attorney Donald W. Grimes, "everybody is glad to put this behind them."
Cavan continues work on O'Neill's site, which has undergone a transformation since the fire.
Since the blaze, O'Neill now plans to call his apartment complex the "Londonbury," complete with doorman and rents up to $5,000.
"It will set a new bar for apartment living in the state of Pennsylvania," he said.
He said that he had ramped up the project because of the fire, a major blow to a borough that had undergone phenomenal growth. State figures showed that from 1995 to 2006, the total real estate value in Conshohocken nearly quadrupled, to $1 billion.
The lowered values on the burned-out properties conservatively have cost the borough and the Colonial School District more than $500,000 in lost taxes.
O'Neill said that from the get-go, he was determined to rebuild. "I wanted to make sure the ramifications of this accident didn't set back that redevelopment one minute," he said.
He said he was committed to Conshohocken because "there are other townships close to here that can't get out of their own ways because they lose sight of the objective."
JP Morgan's Riverwalk property manager, Bozzuto Management Co. of Greenbelt, Md., said it was happy with the settlement terms and planned to have the rebuilt buildings ready for full occupancy by the end of the year. O'Neill said the Londonbury would be open by next spring.
Yesterday's event, in which Mongeluzzi, O'Neill, and attorneys for the insurers exchanged compliments, was in stunning contrast to a news conference that Mongeluzzi convened in August to coincide with the fire's anniversary.
That day, Mongeluzzi presented graphic pictures of the fire, and former tenants gave emotional accounts of what they had lost. At that time, Mongeluzzi described the settlement negotiations as "fruitless."
Asked yesterday if that event helped speed up the negotiation process, he said, "One can only speculate."
One of those in attendance that day, Irwin Becker, had broken down as he described possessions he had lost, including a wedding ring his wife had given him.
Becker did not attend yesterday's event, and he said word of the settlement was oddly unsettling.
"I want to move forward," Becker said. "Thank God it's over."
Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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