A lawsuit that’s delayed an $80 million hotel project in Boston’s North End is partly funded by a rival developer who unsuccessfully attempted to buy the site, the hotel developer’s legal team alleges.
Steven Meyer of Boston-based Sassoon Cymrot Law is manager of 52 Salem St. LLC, which owns an adjacent parcel to the litigation-delayed hotel site at 42 Cross St. In an October 2022 letter, Meyer wrote to abutter Mary Beth Sweeney that the entity would financially support her appeal of the hotel approval “and subsidize a significant portion of the legal expenses.” Last month, Sweeney testified she has received $150,000 in payments.
Legal pleadings portray Sweeney as a pawn being used by the owners of 52 Salem St. to block the Cross Street hotel project so they can attempt to acquire the site.
“Sweeneys’ serial litigation efforts have been funded and directed by an opaque group of deep-pocketed third parties, with clear ulterior motives,” attorneys from Hemenway & Barnes wrote in a recent filing in Suffolk Superior Court.
Attorneys for the hotel developers claim that the neighboring 52 Salem St. parcel is owned by Andrew Collins, who unsuccessfully attempted to buy the Cross Street Hotel site in 2019 and still hopes to obtain ownership.
Sweeney is suing the Boston Zoning Board of Appeal and project architect Michael Doherty, seeking to block construction of the 5-story, 132-room hotel which would rise across an alleyway from her Stillman Street condominium. Doherty is named as a defendant because he submitted the hotel plans to the ZBA.
Testimony in the case has attempted to unravel a web of competing interests with stakes in the hotel development’s success or failure.
Approval Not the End of Debate
During a 16-month permitting process, arguments for and against the North End hotel project touched on familiar debating points for real estate developments in Boston.
Developers touted economic benefits such as job creation and additional tax revenues, and predicted the hotel would ease demand for Airbnb-type rentals in the North End.
Opponents objected to a loss of views and an infusion of additional noise, odors and shadows in the densely-populated neighborhood.
Despite testimony in opposition from then-City Councilor Lydia Edwards, the Boston Planning & Development Agency directors approved the project in March 2022.
The Boston Zoning Board of Appeal approved three variances for the hotel project in August 2022, approving construction of the nearly 70,000-square-foot structure despite its non-conformity with zoning regulations on rear setback, floor area ratio and plans for a rooftop restaurant.
Sweeney initially challenged the approval in state Land Court, in a complaint that was dismissed less than two weeks before the ZBA vote.
Seeking Payments’ Source
Sweeney filed a subsequent complaint in Suffolk Superior Court. Sweeney is represented by Mintz Levin, Boston’s third-largest law firm.
In an April 26 deposition, Sweeney testified that she received $150,000 toward her legal fees from Osmin Alberto Montero in the form of cash, checks and wire transfers.
Montero, described by Sweeney as a community activist, sent an email to Sweeney on March 28, 2022 suggesting a lawsuit to block the hotel project.
“Objective: obstruct the proponents ability to source capital to stabilize their project, by means of clouding their title,” the email, included in court filings, states. “Challenge the BPDA and the developer on any and all aspects of the Article 80 protocols executed throughout the 15-month cycle, as well as open meeting law violations, in court.”
Montero delivered the first payment in an envelope filled with $100 bills during a meeting at Christopher Columbus Park, Sweeney testified. He told her that the money came from Meyer, the lawyer who manages the LLC controlling 52 Salem St.
In an over four-hour deposition held June 1, Meyer denied giving any money to Sweeney or Montero. He acknowledged sending a letter to Sweeney representing that he “would provide her with financial support in connection with her efforts.”
In a phone interview, Meyer said he represents North End residents who oppose the hotel project, but was not the source of the funding received by Sweeney.
“Those clients have opposed the project, and they don’t think the project is a good one for the neighborhood in general,” Meyer said. “This is a much more general concern, and my involvement is not exclusive to 52 Salem St. LLC.”
During discovery, developers’ attorneys have sought to identify outside sources of funding received by Sweeney to pursue the lawsuit.
Sweeney, director of the John Winthrop School for Young Children in Back Bay, bought the 26 Stilling St. condo for $292,000 in 2016. After the hotel development plans surfaced, Sweeney set up a GoFundMe account to solicit donations from opponents, who contributed sums ranging from $25 to $5,500.
In a March 2022 email to supporters, Sweeney wrote that Mintz Levin had quoted a $25,000 to $50,000 price for litigation. She added that the “anonymous” owner of a Salem Street property had already contributed $10,000.
Rival Developer Sought to Buy Property
North End Cross Street LLC, an entity which lists Meyer as manager, had previously tried to buy the 42 Cross St. development site from the Pace family, owners of the J. Pace & Son grocery store.
North End Cross Street LLC signed a purchase-and-sale agreement for the Cross Street property which expired in September 2019. 6M Development, led by Boston developer William Caulder, signed a purchase-and-sale in early 2020 and acquired the property in 2022 for $9.5 million.
Hemenway & Barnes attorneys claim that Andrew Collins is the owner of 52 Salem St., a 1,610-square-foot parcel adjacent to the hotel site. Corporation filings with the Massachusetts secretary of the commonwealth’s office do not disclose any ownership details.
“It is nevertheless reasonable to infer that Attorney Meyer’s client, Andrew Collins, has purchased the adjacent parcel, is funding Sweeney’s litigation in an effort to defeat the hotel project, and still hopes to acquire and develop the property himself,” Hemenway and Barnes attorneys argue.
On June 8, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Kenneth Salinger approved a motion for a protective order vacating subpoenas against 11 people who contributed to Sweeney’s lawsuit.
“This is a case involving a developer who is attempting to be a bit of a bully, and he attempted to dissolve any opposition to his project by taking each contributor’s deposition and putting that additional pressure on them,” Meyer said.
Montero was not available for comment.
Editor’s notes: This report includes comment from attorney Steven Meyer obtained after Banker & Tradesman’s print edition went to press.
On June 8, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Kenneth Salinger approved a motion for a protective order vacating subpoenas against 11 people who contributed to a lawsuit against the Cross Street hotel. This report previously stated incorrectly that the motion was still under review.