Pawtucket Board Questioning Liquor License for CA Developer Getting $3.6M

Sunday, November 20, 2016


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Phyllis Arffa, who had owned Blaze, has come forth to try and block developer Lance Robbins' liquor license renewal at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket.

A former tenant of controversial California developer Lance Robbins, who is getting $3.6 million in tax credits from Rhode Island, is alleging the liquor license arrangement between her former restaurant and Robbins' Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, where it was located, was not legal.

Phyllis Arffa, who had owned Blaze Restaurant, testified at the most recent Pawtucket Board of License Commissioners hearing, where the Board was considering the renewal of a number of liquor licenses -- including Robbins' liquor license under "Hope Springs Eternal." 

"I've heard from Rosinha, I heard from a second person who feels they've been victimized and that concerns me greatly. We've got people operating liquor establishments in your facility I'm not 100% clear on," City Councilman John Barry told Robbins' business partner Michael Gazdacko, who was present at the meeting. "We hold license holders responsible, and [here] we don't see the license holder necessarily, these people who have to buy the booze."

"I don't want your place to not be successful, but when two people tell you that they put their livelihood into the business, and were treated poorly by management, I think that becomes a concern of the licensing board because these people are serving alcohol in the City of Pawtucket," said Barry.

Latest in Robbins' Controversies

Last month, Rhode Island Commerce Corporation board member Karl Wadensten called on the agency to take a closer look at its standards of who it does business with, following the investigation by GoLocal into Robbins, whose multi-million dollar tax credit award from the agency came under scrutiny. As GoLocal reported:

The GoLocal investigation found that not only had Robbins come under scrutiny in California after being reported in the Los Angeles Times and other press sources as one of LA's "most notorious slumlords." Robbins was sued in Connecticut, has pending litigation in North Carolina, and has had a number of failed business owners at his Hope Artiste Village speak out in opposition to his getting millions in taxpayer support. 

Arffa spoke to getting involved with the issue of Robbins' liquor license renewal. 

"Basically, what [Robbins] was doing was subletting the liquor license to me and that isn't legal," said Arffa, who spoke about being forced to close the restaurant with GoLocal in October.

"I had heard that Hope Artiste Village was at the last [liquor] board meeting, and that someone from there said they were representing Blaze Village Kitchen. It drives me bonkers they were representing themselves as that, that was my restaurant.  So I wanted to know what was going on."

Arffa said that despite Blaze being closed, she wanted to go to the most recent license to raise her concerns about renewing Robbins' liquor license.

"Our hope is they take the license away or at least fine them," said Arffa. "[Robbins] skirts the legal line all the time."

Arffa presented her story to the Commissioners, which is comprised of City Council members.

VIDEO: See the Board of License Commissioners Meeting HERE

"Just so I'm clear, Hope Artiste Village, Hope Springs Eternal  -- they have the license?" City Councilwoman Mary Bray asked Arffa at the meeting. "When you had the restaurant, who ran the bar?"

"I did," said Arffa. "They told us they had to hold the license, for bowling alley, entertainment. room, and my restaurant."

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Hope Artiste Village's Michael Gazdacko represented owner and developer Robbins at the recent meeting.

"What would have happened f there was a problem with the bar -- if you served someone underage, who would have been responsible?" asked Bray. 

"I didn't know," said Arffa. 

Defending Arrangement

Michael Gazdacko with Hope Artiste Village, who was at the meeting, said to the Commissioners that there was nothing illegal with the arrangement that they entered into with Blaze. 

"We weren't trying to do anything illegal in any way shape or form," said Gazdacko. "We never subleased a liquor license. In addition there weren't leases. They were partnership agreements."

Arffa during her testimony countered that assessment. 

"We signed a memo. I never signed the partnership agreement because I didn't agree with all the stipulations," aid Arffa. "It was a tenant landlord situation."

Gazdacko noted in making his case for the license renewal that all the establishments -- the restaurant, the event space, and the bowling alley, are now all owned and operated under "Hope Springs Eternal."

Council Members Seeking More Info

Following the over half hour discussion between the Commissioners, Arffa, and Gazdacko, the decision was made to postpone the consideration of Robbins' liquor license renewal until the next meeting on November 22.

"I think this is much bigger legal issue than we can handle here," said Councilwoman Bray. "I suggest we table the license and set something up with our City Solicitor."


Related Slideshow: Lance Robbins Controversies Through the Years

There are dozens of issues and hundreds of articles about Robbins controversies. GoLocal has broken down a dozen of the conflicts that have taken place across the country over the past 30 plus years.

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LINDA DEUTSCH, Associated Press
Jun. 5, 1986 

Residents of a dilapidated building who say they regularly fight off armies of giant rats, swarms of cockroaches and youth gangs that roam their hallways have sued the building's owner for $10 million.

Attorneys for the Spanish-speaking residents related nightmarish stories of cockroaches biting sleeping children, a rat they said tried to drag a baby from its bed and another that allegedly attacked a man in the shower.

They said tenants feel rats crawl over them at night and some stand guard over babies all night, fighting off the rodents with brooms and slingshots.

The lawyers opened roach traps on the front steps of the South Union Street building near downtown to display dozens of huge cockroaches, some still crawling, which they said were caught in the building overnight.

The lawsuit, filed jointly in Superior Court by four private and public- interest law firms, accuses building owner Lance J. Robbins and his associates of refusing to make repairs, curb vermin infestation or provide reliable water, electricity or security in the 40-unit building, which houses large families in one-room apartments.

Robbins said Wednesday that none of his employees in the building have seen any rats and, ''I wouldn't be a bit surprised if a lot of this at the news conference was staged.''


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Los Angeles Times, August 8, 1986, "Landlord Issues 5 More Violations"

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Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2000 PART 1 on the article Titled, "City Attorney Joins Lawsuit Against Landlord"

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Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2000 PART 2 on the article Titled, "City Attorney Joins Lawsuit Against Landlord"

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Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2000 PART 3 on the article Titled, "City Attorney Joins Lawsuit Against Landlord"

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Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2000 PART 4 on the article Titled, "City Attorney Joins Lawsuit Against Landlord"

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Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2002, "Slumlords Donated to Delgadillo"

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Los Angeles Times, Oct 25, 2005

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Los Angeles Times, Nov. 1, 2005, "State Moves to Pull Real Estate Liense of L.A. Landlord"

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Robbins Loses Real Estate License

Realty Times, January 18, 2010

Real estate broker and attorney, Lance Robbins, both owned and managed numerous "slumlord" apartments in the city of Los Angeles. This, as acknowledged by Robbins's attorney, was an extremely lucrative business. The record suggests, though, that Robbins took less than adequate care of the apartments under his control. Between 1985 and 1995, Robbins had been convicted of some 50 municipal building code violations. He was twice disciplined (1991 and 1994) by the State Bar for "facts and circumstances surrounding habitability violations in properties" that he owned.

In January of 2001, Robbins pleaded nolo contendere and was convicted of three misdemeanor violations of the fire protection and prevention provisions of the Los Angeles Municipal Code. He was fined $100 and placed on summary probation for 18 months. In March of 2003 the Department of Real Estate filed an accusation alleging that Robbins's convictions constituted cause for the suspension or revocation of his license as a broker. MORE HERE

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Lauren Saunders of the National Consumer Law Center is one of the top tenant advocacy attorneys told GoLocal on Tuesday. 

Robbins was one of the most dishonest and unscrupulous people I have come across in my career working for vulnerable tenants and consumers. I cannot imagine entrusting any city money to him.

Lance Robbins was the worst slumlord in L.A. history. The city's Slum Housing Task Force prosecuted him numerous times for horrible conditions at his buildings. He also ran up huge water bills at his buildings that he refused to pay, and the city was reluctant to shut off the water for fear of harming the tenants. I filed a False Claims Act case against him and he was forced to pay $1 million in back water bills.

He was also extremely ingenious about using a complex web of sham corporations to avoid liability. After the fines from his slum violations and his back water bills started adding up, he started foreclosing against himself and putting his buildings into receivership to escape accountability. His buildings were in numerous different corporations and partnerships and he put loans in other names against his own buildings, then started a foreclosure action. He then asked the court to appoint a "neutral" receiver who he chose who actually just let Robbins stay in control of the building.  We detailed that in the same lawsuit.


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Developer Getting $3.6M in RI Tax Credits Sued by N. Carolina Town for Backing Out of Project

Urban Smart Growth (USG), the developer who just received nearly $3.6 million in tax credits from Governor Gina Raimondo and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, was sued by the Town of Belville, North Carolina, in 2015 for backing out of a project, GoLocal has learned...

Robbins and USG stated on Monday that they are intending to utilize the Rhode Island tax credits to complete a $38.9 million project to develop 150 loft apartments at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket. 

However, in North Carolina, a stalled USG project has led to the Town of Belville to seek arbitration, following its 2015 lawsuit against USG, who in 2007 had entered into a twenty-year agreement to develop a mixed-used project along the town's waterfront.

Not only did the project never come to fruition, press reports show that USG engaged in discussions with the adjacent town of Leland to annex Belville's downtown and undertake the project with them instead. 

"We need to bring [Robbins] to light. It's really a shame-- he goes and buys up cheap property and tries and hoodwinks the local city councils to fund this kind of development," said Peter Schardien, who is the husband of Belville Commissioner Donna Schardien, of Robbins. "He's an attorney, or he used to be, and he knows how to get around things. He's no good."

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Former Business Partner of Robbins of USG Sued and Received $28M - and Warns RI

Frank Gamwell, a former business partner of Lance Robbins of Urban Smart Growth (USG), has said that he would "never do business with him again" after suing Robbins for $28 million and ultimately receiving the amount in arbitration.

Now, Gamwell is warning that Rhode Island should be doing its "due diligence" in dealing with Robbins. 

On Monday, USG was awarded $3.6 million in tax credits from Governor Gina Raimondo and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation to develop lofts at Hope Artiste Village. 

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"This Just Isn't Fair,” Says Restaurant Owner About Developer Robbins Getting $3.6M in RI Tax Credits

A former restaurant owner at Hope Artiste Village said that she "wished she had sued" Urban Smart Growth (USG), the management company that was awarded $3.6 million in tax credits from the RI Commerce Corporation this week.

Rosinha Benros, who had opened and owned the restaurant "Rosinha" at Hope Artiste Village, said she had a number of issues with USG -- including having had gas being turned off due to USG not having paid their National Grid bill.  

"I opened that space, I created that place," Benros told GoLocal on Thursday, of the restaurant she ran for over three years. "I can't even drive by, I loved that place so much. It just breaks my heart."
Benros said that issues with the change in management, coupled with having problems with The Met being located next door, led in part to her closing the restaurant.
USG's CEO and principal is controversial developer Lance Robbins, who in California was cited with 105 health and building-code violations, piled up 32 convictions, paid a $1 million fine, to name a few of his legal problems, according to press reports.

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RI Security Firm Says Developer Robbins of USG Won’t Pay $23K Bill

A former security services vendor for Hope Artiste Village is claiming that owner Urban Smart Growth (USG) never paid them $23,583 for  services in a six-month span starting in 2013.

“We started services on December 13, 2013 and ended services on June 21, 2014. They paid a total of six invoices during our services,” said Karen Voisard with Metropolitan Public Safety, who provided the check stubs from USG. “As of current standing with the company we are owed $23,583.00 for eighteen overdue invoices. That doesn't include any of the late charges as stated in our contract.”

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Former Owner of Blaze Restaurant: USG’s Robbins “Threatened to Bankrupt Me”

Phyllis Arffa, the originator and owner of the restaurant Blaze, said that Lance Robbins of Urban Smart Growth threatened to bankrupt her when her business was struggling at Hope Artiste Village.

Arffa, who owned and operated Blaze on Hope Street in Providence before moving to Hope Artist Village in 2015, said that she has had to go back to working in a kitchen to pay back $70,000 in debt that she accrued while trying to make Blaze work under Robbins, which she said she ultimately had to step away from due to financial and health reasons. 

"I wish I never met [Robbins]. I had money in the bank, we were all set to relax for a little while," said Arffa after moving from Hope Street to the Hope Artiste village.  "Now, I'm working 12 to 12 to just to pay back what I owe."

Arffa showed a text sent by Robbins threatening to bankrupt her.  

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Robbins Crushed Local Baker

The former owner of the Bread Lab at Hope Artiste Village, which is owned by controversial developer Lance Robbins, said she found him to be “morally bankrupt” as she was forced to close her operations in 2015. 

Deana Martin, who had owned the Bread Lab with her husband, said that she battled with Robbins over a number of issues -- including the insurance money following the destruction of her bakery equipment due to the mill’s sprinklers going off one night. 

“If you don't give him what he wants, he'll use whatever leverage he has to get what wants,” said Martin.  “If it furthers his benefit, he'll take it from you, and the legal proceedings are just that — if he wins, he claims he’s not ‘guilty.’


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