WILKES-BARRE — Multiple lawsuits have slowed development of a 6.36-acre tract at the corner of East Market Street and Wilkes-Barre Boulevard, which includes a historic train station and building pad promising a Burger King.
The two well-known men at the helm in these opposing legal positions — George Albert and Thom Greco — offer different takes on the state of affairs.
Albert, a local developer who bought the site with other investors for $1.2 million two years ago, said Greco’s filing of all but one of the legal actions has caused “unbelievable delays, grief and distractions” for owners who are trying to restore the landmark train station and transform a city gateway.
“Mr. Greco has just ground us to a halt here,” Albert said. “We’re very private and just want to get things done, but our patience is done at this point.”
Greco said he embraces development but was forced to pursue litigation to protect his existing lots in the complex, which house McDonald’s and Citizens Bank — parcels he owns with his company, TGRG LLP.
He points to a recent arbitrator’s ruling forcing the developer to remove a section of curbing by the bank to restore some parking as proof his property interests were violated.
“I don’t want to be in court, but if people don’t follow requirements and ignore you, this is the only option,” Greco said. “It’s the last thing we want to do.”
Four legal actions tied to the development are still pending, according to a review of Luzerne County Court records.
Two dueling suits filed in December 2016 disagree on whether Albert’s company, Market Square Properties Development LLC, is permitted to construct the Burger King.
Greco says a no-competition covenant tied to the property forbids any restaurant that derives 25 percent or more of its gross annual receipts from the sale of hamburgers, ground beef products and fries. Market Square argues the covenant was implemented without authority and must be declared unenforceable.
The cases were consolidated for adjudication and are in the discovery stage. Both sides were ordered in October to comply with requests to produce documents demanded by the other.
While he’s heard the Burger King plan fell through, Greco said the litigation must run its course because he wants a lasting ruling in case other eateries are proposed at that corner lot.
Albert said Burger King is still very interested in locating there but cannot commit until the suit is resolved. He expects discovery to wrap up in a few months and will then ask the court to make a summary judgment ruling instead of advancing to trial.
“Burger King and McDonald’s are next to one another everywhere in the country,” Albert said.
The third open court action, filed by Greco and TGRG in April 2017, accuses Market Square of wrongfully taking a red stone keystone from the 1800s when the company removed a landscape island and flower bed along East Market near the lot leased to Citizens Bank.
Greco’s filing said the stone is his personal property and worth an estimated $13,000, and he maintained he received no response to a letter to Albert seeking its return.
Market Square responded that the stone isn’t personal property because it was on Market Square’s land, but it would have been made available to Greco if he had requested it.
There have been no filings in that action for a year.
Albert said Greco was informed the stone was placed in front of the former New Jersey Central train station at the complex and is available for his pickup at any time.
Greco said the dirt ground in that area has prevented him from bringing in his forklift.
Albert said he will place the stone in a convenient spot for Greco’s retrieval when work begins on the train station.
Roads and parking
Greco and TGRG also are challenging the Wilkes-Barre Planning Commission’s approval of a reverse subdivision and development plans, arguing the plans violated an easement agreement and reduced parking for Citizens Bank by relocating the Market Street entrance closer to the bank.
The filing asks the court to reverse the commission’s approval and revoke construction permits.
A county judge denied the appeal in May 2017, agreeing with the commission’s assertion it was filed too late.
Greco is seeking a hearing on his disagreement of this interpretation but requested a postponement until a separate arbitration is processed, saying that decision could be relevant in the planning commission matter.
The binding arbitration sought by Greco through the American Arbitration Association was required under a 2005 easement agreement to resolve disputes, Greco said.
Attorney Patrick R. Kingsley, the arbitrator, issued a decision last month concluding:
• A curb installed by Market Square along a McDonald’s parking lot does not interfere with tractor-trailer access.
• Market Square does not have to make changes to a shared parking area also available to McDonald’s customers.
• Market Square must reimburse Greco/TGRG $8,444 for pothole repairs on the road adjacent to McDonald’s.
• Within 60 days, Market Square must remove a curb and make other adjustments by Citizens Bank that are encroaching on a parking easement.
Market Square also must pay the arbitration administrative fees and expenses.
Albert said the decision also requires Market Square to complete a concrete apron and curbing at the Northampton Street site entrance that was not finished because Greco had blocked contractors from finishing that section.
Market Square is prepared to file an injunction against Greco if he attempts to interfere with the company’s completion of the work specified by the arbitrator.
Greco said the decision was “a win” because the plans submitted to the planning commission “misrepresented” the existence of the easement by the bank.
“It’s clear from the arbitration ruling that what was approved by the planning commission, they can’t do,” Greco said.
Albert said he and other investors took on the project to help the city, knowing it would never be a “huge financial gain” due to the cost to preserve the train station for professional offices.
Because it is a historic structure with complex architectural features, the renovation will cost about $1 million, or $250 a square foot, he said, noting he could build a new structure at that amount. The station is on the National Register of Historic Places.
He said he is “very close” to securing all tenants for the building, which also will house his office, with a goal of starting renovations this year.
A strip mall at the site, now called the Market Street Business Center, was renovated last year.
Albert said he is particularly frustrated about the litigation because Greco and his companies had sold the property he is trying to develop to the county Redevelopment Authority for $5.8 million in 2006, after carving out the bank and McDonald’s parcels to keep. Market Square bought the complex from the authority.
“From day one he was combative and argumentative and had no interest in cooperating in this bigger project, even though it benefits his real estate,” Albert said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.