Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Brothers Chawla's Big Mess

Philadelphia's most notorious real estate flippers and speculators have got themselves in a spot of legal trouble again. This time, the Feds are accusing the Hardeep and Ravinder Chawla of trying to bribe an aide to at-large Councilman Jack Kelly with a Rittenhouse Square apartment, legal help and other assorted goodies, the Inquirer and Daily News both report today. Kelly, incidentally, is a good friend of the Chawlas.

Those among you who like to connect the dots will recall that the Chawlas are the guys who hired Daroff Design in 2006 to cook up the loony, George Jetson nutscape (see image) called New River City for the Schuylkill waterfront. The brothers, who hail from Burma and now live in Huntington Valley, claimed they were prepared to build 10 high-rise towers, containing a whopping 12 million square feet of space (that's 10 Liberty Places), in a L-shaped arrangement spanning the Schuylkill River and the airspace over Septa's regional rail viaduct. (See my 2006 column here, and blog post here.)

The Chawlas, who were then operating as the megla-manically named World Acquisition Group, got Gov. Rendell himself to make a personal pitch for the project to the skeptical Logan Square Neighborhood Association - after contributing some $31,000 to the guv's campaign chest.

Perhaps to cover their bets, the Chawlas had Kelly's aide, Christopher Wright, introduce them to people at the neighborhood association, the group's president, Rob Stuart, told me. Wright is alleged to have received $16,000 worth of favors for the introduction and other help. Those pitches "epitomize how business and politics get done in Philadelphia," Stuart observed.

Although they never received the hoped-for zoning variances for New River City, the Chawlas have continued to be generous to Philly politicians. In 2007, they hosted a fundraiser for Mayor Nutter, Mary Patel reported. It was arranged by PR it-girl Kelly Boyd and attended by the likes of DA Lynne Abraham and former controller Jonathan Saidel.

Considering all the money the Brothers Chawla have spread around, it's interesting how little they've built. They seem to prefer to collect than develop. In 2005, they took the infamous NewMarket site off Will Smith's hands. Initially, they came up with a proposals for a gruesome 20-story tower, by Daroff's James Rappaport (son of a federal judge, incidentally). But after intense neighborhood opposition, they leased the site to Marc Stein, the developer of the yet-unbuilt Bridgman's View. Stein's hotel-condo project won a controversial zoning change from the Nutter administration in May after much heated debate. (See rendering above)

Stamper Square, I would argue, is among better things to result from the Chawla's wheeling and dealing. They were the notorious landlords for the Architect's Building, before selling it to a developer to convert to a Kimpton Hotel. They also flipped the former Locust Club on Locust Street to philanthropist Gerry Lenfest, who is turning it into dorms for students of the Curtis Institute. But they still own the empty and decaying AAA building at 21st and Market Streets, as well as another office building at 1760 Market Street. The Chawlas' Sant Properties is also said to be the largest owners of industrial property in Philadelphia's Northeast - Kelly's stomping grounds.

For a time, they were the landlord for the IRS. But Hardeep Chawla apparently got a little greedy and tried to stiff the nation's tax collector by failing to pass along a mandatory property tax rebate. Whoops! He spent six months in jail for that one. Something tells me this latest indictment isn't the last we'll hear of the Brothers Chawla and their political friends.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI, your link to the LSNA goes to the wrong one -- there's a Logan Square in Chicago. Ours is

I enjoy both your column and your blog -- keep it up!

9:26 AM  

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