March 12, 2010

Contentious Soley back in spotlight, defiant as ever

DAVID HENCH

— By

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Tuesday, January 6, 2009: The City of Portland is evicting tenants from 10 Exchange St. due to fire and safety violations. Residential tenants have to be out by Friday, business tenants have two weeks.

Jack Milton

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STAFF PHOTO BY JOHN EWING -- Tuesday, June 29, 1999 -- Portland landlord Joe Soley speaks to reporters following the judgement in a lawsuit against him filed by tenents of one of his buildings.

Staff Writer

Joseph Soley is a genial, thoughtful collector of fine art, and a creative developer who played a significant role in the revitalization of Portland's Old Port as a prime shopping district.

He's also one of the state's most controversial landlords, for years butting heads with tenants and Portland officials. Those who have worked with him say he reviles bureaucrats and dislikes rules that inconvenience him, cost him money or, in his analysis, make no sense.

As such, Soley has frequently found himself the subject of legal action and intense media scrutiny, at one point paying out one of the state's largest punitive-damage awards ever in a landlord-tenant dispute.

But it's been years since he was the center of controversy, leading some people to surmise that he had changed, or perhaps that the rumors of his relocation to New York City were true. Then last week, the city ordered tenants of one of Soley's Old Port buildings to vacate because, city officials said, the landlord had not addressed fire code violations.

''Sometimes you think toothaches have been fixed, and then they come back,'' said Gary Wood, Portland's corporation counsel, who has tangled with Soley on numerous occasions. ''Based on what I know, this is really the first incident of a serious nature we've been involved in with him for years.''

Soley could not be reached for comment for this story. But his dispute with the city over 10 Exchange St. shows the 76-year-old property owner is still a force in Portland's downtown real estate scene.

The problems were discovered after a minor fire in September 2007. The sprawling building -- which includes 8 to 22 Exchange St. and its residential floors, known as 7 Fox Court -- has working sprinklers and fire alarms. But the residential systems are not integrated with the commercial systems on the lower floor, fire officials say.

That means residents upstairs might not be alerted to a fire on the first floor. In addition, emergency lighting was inadequate, fire doors had been removed and there were other deficiencies, the department found.

For more than a year, the city and Soley wrangled over the improvements. At times he would promise changes, but then he wouldn't follow through, said Fire Chief Fred Lamontagne.

Today, the city plans to ask a judge for the authority to force any remaining residential tenants out of the building because it is, they say, unsafe for habitation.

DISREGARD FOR AUTHORITY

That Soley and the city have reached this point doesn't come as a big surprise to people who have worked with or against him over the years.

David Lourie has done both, as a former Portland city attorney and later as a lawyer in private practice who represented Soley.

''It's much easier to sue him than to represent him,'' Lourie said. ''I don't think you'll find anybody who likes being told what to do, and he shows it more than most.

''He likes to make people not know what he's going to do next,'' Lourie said. ''He's unpredictable. He uses that, along with a sense of fear, as a bargaining tool, and he's very effective. Nobody knows how much of it is an act.''

Soley bought a series of brick buildings in the 1980s, renovated them and helped usher in the rebirth of Portland's downtown. He worked hard and amassed a fortune.

Court papers in 1998 suggested he was worth $55 million, though he disputed that. Lawyers who sued him in 1998 in a landlord-tenant dispute estimated his net worth was between $20 million and $30 million.

He's often seen visiting his Old Port properties dressed in jeans, work boots and a worn coat. Last week, as city officials visited business owners to warn them of the eviction notice, Soley watched what was happening from a small store in a building he owns across the street.

ARCHITECTURE DEGREE FROM MIT

Soley attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, but abandoned medicine for buildings. In 1982, he received a graduate degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One time he replaced a demolished building by constructing additions to the structures on either side, which he owned, using the loophole to avoid a rigorous city review.

''He always thought he knew more than the inspectors,'' Lourie said. ''They would order him to do something and he would tell me, 'That doesn't make any sense. That's stupid.' Sometimes he was right.''

Before last week, Soley's most recent appearance in the public eye was initiated by him. In 2007, he challenged a South Portland board's approval of plans for a cinema at the Maine Mall. He has owned the Clark's Pond retail development, where another cinema has operated.

A $1 MILLION PUNISHMENT

Soley's inclination to disregard authority has cost him plenty.

Four students sued him in 1998 after they were rented a condemned apartment at 9-11 Exchange St., which his property managers then refused to repair.

When they moved out and stopped paying rent, Soley sent four people into their apartment to take their belongings, holding them until they paid up, according to court documents.

Soley told the tenants he knew where they were moving to and where their families lived, which they took as a threat, according to their testimony in court papers.

As the lawsuit progressed, Soley refused to comply with a court order to turn over information. The judge entered a default against him, and further delays prevented him from even entering evidence about how much the tenants should be awarded in damages.

A jury awarded the tenants money for their suffering and their expenses, and then tacked on a $1 million punitive award. Soley appealed the case all the way to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, but lost. The court said the magnitude of the award was justified in large part because of Soley's flagrant disregard for court rules.

Gregory Hansel of Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios, a Portland law firm that represents the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, represented the students in that case. He wasn't surprised Soley is back in the news.

''You always hope people will change, and sometimes they disappoint you by acting the same way,'' Hansel said. ''I guess the next punitive damage award will have to be greater.''

In another case, Soley didn't pay a city sewer bill. The $5,000 sewer lien placed against his Fore Street building eventually led to a foreclosure, essentially giving the city at least a claim on the entire building.

The city agreed to let Soley sell the property as long as it went to an independent owner who would bring a new kind of tenant to the area.

The city has pursued Soley for fire and safety code violations, like those alleged at 10 Exchange St. He also has been cited for health code violations at the former Seaman's Club restaurant. And, previously, 10 Exchange St. was almost shut down by the city because of constant police problems associated with tenants who lived there.

In the latter case, the city forced Soley to sign an agreement to provide on-site management and take other steps to curb misbehavior there, but he resisted implementing changes and finally had to be ordered by a court to abide by the agreement.

RANGE OF INTERESTS

When he's not working, one of Soley's pastimes is art. He is frequently seen visiting galleries and owns a collection of fine paintings.

He also takes pride in the restaurants he has been involved with. Lourie, the attorney, recalls that Soley showed up to a meeting once with a stack of pizzas from a pizzeria he owned, proudly extolling his crust as one of the best in the area.

''He seemed to have real pride in his restaurants. I think he really had pride in the Seaman's Club before it got closed down,'' Lourie said.

Soley's personal and professional lives are as disparate as the tenants in his buildings.

On the ground floor of 10 Exchange St. are fine jewelry stores and boutiques. Two flights upstairs are run-down apartments inhabited by tenants ranging from struggling college students to criminal offenders.

Some apartments have broken windowpanes covered by cardboard; some heating systems, toilets and stoves don't work; and the noises coming from the floorboards sound like mice, according to renters.

City officials and others say Soley's recent tussle with the city shows he hasn't changed his approach to business and he hasn't mellowed with age.

''Part of it is being kind of a scofflaw, part of it is a dislike of bureaucracy and bureaucrats and rules,'' Lourie said. ''If he respects people, then he has a good relationship. If he doesn't, he does what he likes.''

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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