Times Picayune: Florida developer behind World Trade Center lawsuit ordered to deposition

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A Florida real estate developer who is challenging the city’s lease of the former World Trade Center building for a Four Seasons hotel must appear for a deposition in New Orleans, a judge ruled Tuesday (April 19).

Stuart “Neil” Fisher of Palm Beach, whose previous investments in New Orleans include failed attempts to develop the Market Street power plant and Plaza Tower, was ordered to appear for questioning by lawyers representing developers who hope to convert the World Trade Center into a Four Seasons hotel.

Orleans Civil District Judge Tiffany Chase issued the decision over the objections of lawyers for Two Canal Street Investors, a losing bidder on the World Trade Center, who said even though Fisher is president of the company, he isn’t directly involved in the litigation and can’t be forced to appear in Louisiana.

Two Canal Street Investors was one of five finalists competing last year for a 99-year lease of the 33-story tower on the riverfront. The group pitched a $228 million plan to develop a Hotel Alessandra and apartments.

A Mayor Mitch Landrieu-appointed selection committee ultimately picked a development team led by Carpenter & Co. of Cambridge, Mass. and Woodward Interests in New Orleans, who propose a $360 million plan for a Four Seasons hotel and condos.

After the lease was awarded, the original organizers of Two Canal Street Investors sold the company to Fisher for $10. Two Canal Street Investors then filed a lawsuit in April 2015 that claims the city’s selection process was unfair, illegal, and led to a bad deal for New Orleans taxpayers.

A lawyer for the Four Seasons team attacked the credibility of Two Canal Street Investors during the hearing Tuesday.

“Mr. Fisher has no right of action,” said lawyer Russ Herman. “He has no interest in Two Canal Street Investors’ presentation to the city of New Orleans…and so here is an individual who purchases for $10 a shell corporation just in order to file a suit, and it has no assets.”

Herman said he traveled to Florida twice expecting to depose Fisher, but both times Fisher did not appear.

Charline Gipson, a lawyer for Two Canal Street Investors, said Fisher is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, and Chase’s ruling will be appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Gipson also took issue with Herman’s depiction of Two Canal Street Investors. “Opposing counsel has spun a story of desperation…that is designed to block the truth from coming out in this case,” Gipson said.

The lawsuit is scheduled for trial on Oct. 24.

In an interview in March, Fisher said he is no longer an owner of Two Canal Street Investors, but he is the president and “authorized representative of the owners, both foreign and domestic.” Fisher said he has a group of new investors including a Wall Street hedge fund, all of whom he declined to name.

On Tuesday, Fisher said Herman’s statements that he did not show up for scheduled meetings in Florida are false. He said he doesn’t expect to be deposed in Louisiana because Two Canal Street Investors will win on appeal. “I’m going after deep pockets on this, because who really lost on this?” Fisher said. “The people I represent lost millions and millions. You know who really lost? The citizens of New Orleans.”

“Nobody but Neil Fisher would have come in and taken the chance on this,” Fisher said. “I did and I expected to win and win big.”

A revival of the World Trade Center is part of a slate of Landrieu administration projects being pushed for the city’s tricentennial celebration in 2018. The lawsuit was apparently enough to stir Landrieu’s administration to action in the state Legislature. His administration is backing legislation that seeks to thwart Two Canal Street Investors’ lawsuit, which threatens to kill the Four Seasons plan.

Chase has said that as a result of the lawsuit, she could force the city to start over the lease selection process, but she could not directly award the lease to Two Canal Street Investors.

The lawsuit hinges on the role of public benefit corporations, entities used by local governments to develop real estate outside of public lease law. The New Orleans Building Corp. owns the World Trade Center on behalf of the city.

Two Canal Street Investors argues that because it offered the most rent, it should have been awarded the 99-year lease. But the city has insisted it can consider a range of factors, such as the capability of a developer and the broader economic impact of a project, under public benefit corporation law.

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