Lofty Aspersions

Some renters find that downtown life ain't so grand. Tough, says their landlord.

The eviction notice arrived on a Tuesday, crisp and white and bearing the signature of Randall Davis.

The developer had had enough of tenant Jay Seegers, and told him so in the most obvious way possible -- by ordering Seegers out of the roomy, New York-style apartment he had rented at Davis' Dakota Lofts for three years.

Seegers' crime, it seems, was one of insolence. Disgusted with the leisurely pace of maintenance at the pricey downtown warehouse-turned-apartment complex, he had paid a visit to management offices one Thursday to complain about a planned $50-per-month rent increase.

There, according to Davis' version of events, things got ugly. Seegers shouted at operations manager Ginger Byrd in such a threatening manner that she felt compelled to call 911, Davis says.

Other reports indicate the only one doing any shouting was Byrd, and that the encounter was amicable until the manager lost her temper -- a development that tenants claim occurs frequently. Whatever the case, police left after determining that the peace had not been breached, and Seegers went back to his apartment. Later that evening, he quietly signed a new lease accepting the rent increase, and forgot about the incident until the following Tuesday, when the eviction notice arrived.

Seegers has since come to an agreement with Davis that will allow him to remain in his loft.

"The matter has been resolved to my satisfaction," he says grimly.
But the incident, which Seegers refused to discuss, has taken on a life of its own, serving as a rallying point for a group of Dakota tenants who now are in open revolt over what they claim is a lack of responsiveness, and in some cases outright abuse, by Davis' management.

"That's when we got a group of people together and said, 'This bullshit has got to stop,' " explains Anne Marie Leahey, leader of the newly formed Dakota Lofts Tenants Association. Leahey, an administrator for a local securities brokerage, says tenants are disgusted at paying anywhere from $675 to $1,475 per month -- about a dollar per square foot -- for nonexistent service.

"You have to understand, this is not a cheap place to live," says Leahey. "And what are we paying for? It's not the great view -- I have this lovely view of a dumpster. It's not the neighborhood -- you can see the HPD motor pool that's in back of the building. We pay for service. But this superior service Ginger [Byrd] says we get -- it just doesn't exist."

"Service, in the three years I've been here, is far below what I'd call quality," adds Gil Perales, another Dakota tenant.

At least 22 residents of the 53-unit complex have joined the tenants association, formed solely to combat what they say are pervasive health and safety problems at the Dakota. The association, which held its first meeting on May 19, basically wants Davis to live up to his press.

Indeed, the developer has been hailed as a visionary in some quarters for spearheading the revival of residential life in and around downtown. So far, Davis has renovated three older buildings into loft-style apartments -- the Dakota, his first project, at the site of the old Bute Paint Factory at 713 William; the Tribeca Lofts on the south end of downtown near Montrose; and the Hogg Palace at Louisiana and Preston. Last week, he announced he had received commitments to partially finance his most ambitious project to date: the multimillion-dollar purchase of the dilapidated Rice Hotel downtown, an architectural landmark he hopes to turn into even more loft units.

But the disaffected tenants at the Dakota say Davis should take care of what he has. A petition signed by association members requests action on a laundry list of problems they say are endemic, including a lack of fire extinguishers in the hallways, stairwells that are blocked with trash, security codes for entry that haven't been changed in three years and an open sewer line in the basement parking garage.

A recent tour of the lofts revealed obvious contrasts between the lobby, with its cutting-edge art and industrial-chic ambiance, and the non-public areas of the building. In the basement, the jagged edge of an old sewer pipe was sealed by nothing more substantial than a wad of cleaning rags. Near the telephone junction box, a bright red sign pointed to a nonexistent fire extinguisher. Sprinkler system lines, hidden under layers of pipe insulation, were encrusted with corrosion and rust. A first-floor fire escape door, intended to be part of a vacuum-sealed stairwell, would not stay closed. A side door leading from an outer patio into the first floor couldn't be locked shut.

"When we tried to be nice, nothing got done," says Leahey. "Every time I would stand up and say something, they'd offer to let me out of my lease. My response to them is, I don't want to leave, I just want to get these things fixed."

But Davis maintains there are no maintenance problems at the Dakota, and he dismisses the tenants association as representing no more than a handful of malcontents.

"Their complaints are bullshit," he says. "If there's a problem, the fire marshal can tell me about it."

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