Who the city calls when it wants to move people

<span style="font-style: italic;">Cornerstone Group quietly steps in when city and state attempt to use eminent domain</span>

In late June, tenants and property owners in the Atlantic Yards footprint received a letter stating that reps from a company called Cornerstone Group Real Estate Services would soon be paying them a visit.

The letter, which was sent by the Empire State Development Corporation’s eminent domain counsel, said Cornerstone would “explain the relocation advisory services and relocation assistance that they will provide.”

While Cornerstone has been in the business for decades, it does not maintain a Web site. Sources who have worked with the firm say its principals, Gary Curry and Stuart Polinsky, are publicity shy.

Nevertheless, Cornerstone is a familiar name to property owners and residents across the city who have faced eminent domain.

The relocation company currently has an 18-month, $750,000 contract with the city’s Economic Development Corporation to aid property owners in Willets Point who will be displaced if plans to redevelop the area are ultimately successful.

In the past, Cornerstone has had contracts with the EDC and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for redevelopment projects such as the Gateway Center at Bronx Terminal Market, Hudson Yards on the Far West Side and the Fulton Street Transit Center in Lower Manhattan.

The company, which did not return repeated calls and e-mails for this story, also has a contract with the EDC for $650,000 for the Downtown Brooklyn revitalization project, a far-reaching program announced in 2003 that was meant to spur commercial and residential development.

“[Cornerstone is] involved in almost every case we’ve worked on,” says Michael Rikon, a partner in the law firm Goldstein, Goldstein, Rikon & Gottlieb, which specializes in condemnation proceedings. “What they do is try to talk to people who are on the site and offer them other locations to move to.”

Rikon, who says that he’s known Gary Curry for around two decades, currently works on behalf of residents and property owners who have been threatened with displacement by the Willets Point and Atlantic Yards projects.

Rikon, who characterizes his relationship with Curry as “warm,” says Cornerstone “had no business talking to tenants” in the Atlantic Yards footprint before the site is legally condemned, and says that the company jumped the gun by reaching out to residents and owners in late June.

Aside from the Empire State Development Corporation letter mentioning Cornerstone, which was reprinted on the watchdog blog Atlantic Yards Report, Rikon says one of his clients called him up in June to tell him Curry was visiting his property.

By visiting the resident, Rikon says, Curry was potentially engaging in an “affirmative value depressing act,” since the condemnation has not yet been vested.

Indeed, eminent domain on the would-be Atlantic Yards land is not a fait accompli — shortly after the letter was sent out, the New York State Court of Appeals announced it would hear a case brought by opponents of the mega-project whose properties are being targeted for seizure.

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Also, while EDC officials say Cornerstone is a leader in its field, some who have had dealings with the company say it has not been helpful in terms of finding them new places to live or run their businesses.

“I toured the Bronx with Gary Curry, and he was very nice and cooperative, but a lot of the properties he showed me just wouldn’t work for my business,” says Stanley Mayer, the president of the Bronx Terminal Market Preservation Association, a group that represented more than 20 businesses in the West Haven section of the Bronx that were evicted in 2006 in order to make way for the Gateway Mall project.

“I think Cornerstone helped a handful of businesses find new spaces,” adds Mayer, who says he found a new space for his business without the help of the firm. “They tried to be helpful, but most of the places I was shown were in bad locations.”

In 2004, Cornerstone had a $152,000 contract with the EDC to provide relocation assistance for the Bronx Terminal Market businesses, according to EDC officials.

In one of the few published interviews that Gary Curry has given, he told the Willets Point blog Iron Triangle Tracker in November that “this is a job that a lot of people don’t like to do, but we do it and we like to do it.”

He also described some of the work Cornerstone would do for Willets Point businesses: “We’ll go back in and start finding out the square footages of the businesses … We’ll see what they have there and what they want to do, where they want to go. If they want to relocate together we’ll try to put them together.”

Some Willets Point business owners say, however, that while they’ve had contact with Cornerstone, they are not sure what the firm does.

“All I know is that they walked around and gave business cards around. They gave one to one of my workers,” says Jake Bono, the third-generation owner of Bono Sawdust and Supply Co. and spokesperson for Willets Point United Against Eminent Domain, a group representing property owners and tenants that do not want to leave Willets Point to make way for the EDC’s redevelopment plans.

Bono continues: “The city hires these companies to accumulate a paper trail. They’re not doing anything to help anyone.”

He argues, “They let the city say in court, ‘On such-and-such date Cornerstone went to the site and gave out 50 business cards.'”

Cornerstone’s low profile is a fairly remarkable feat given the boldface projects it has had a hand in.

One instance in which the company gained some no-doubt-unwelcome publicity was in 2006, when Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Congressman Jerrold Nadler took the MTA and Cornerstone to task for not providing adequate relocation assistance to businesses displaced for the construction of the Fulton Street Transit Center.

A press release Stringer’s office sent out about the $750 million, federally funded project said the following about Cornerstone: “The small business owners claim that the Cornerstone Group, an MTA subcontractor charged with assisting in relocation, has continuously failed to provide helpful rental listings for those forced to relocate. Many of the businesses require less than 1,000 square feet of office space and are constantly referred to available space that is too large and too expensive … In some cases, local entrepreneurs claim that the Cornerstone Group directed them to space in buildings that were allegedly scheduled to be sold in the near future.”

The press release quoted one business owner as saying that “at best Cornerstone has been incompetent.”