Trouble Building

Only a Wegmans market and a Target store have been built at J. Brian O'Neill's still largely undeveloped Uptown Worthington project in Malvern. O'Neill has sued Citizens Bank over what he calls broken financial promises. The bank says his claims have no basis in reality.
Only a Wegmans market and a Target store have been built at J. Brian O'Neill's still largely undeveloped Uptown Worthington project in Malvern. O'Neill has sued Citizens Bank over what he calls broken financial promises. The bank says his claims have no basis in reality.

The feud between developer J. Brian O'Neill and Citizens Bank is set to play out in court this week.

Posted: June 20, 2010

If the documents filed in recent weeks are any indication, a truce is not likely Monday when one of the region's more prolific developers, J. Brian O'Neill, and Citizens Bank of Pennsylvania face off in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

Judge Albert W. Sheppard Jr. is scheduled to hear arguments on a motion by Citizens Bank to have O'Neill's stunning lawsuit - filled with allegations of fraud and other abuses by the bank - thrown out.

In January, O'Neill sued the bank for $8 billion, alleging broken financial promises by Citizens that he says have "destroyed" his much-anticipated - and largely incomplete - Uptown Worthington mixed-use development in Malvern.

The lawsuit, which has since been amended and now puts damages at $297 million, also claims that Citizens Bank employees defamed and disparaged O'Neill when the relationship between the bank and the King of Prussia developer soured and have harmed other business relationships he had.

In documents filed last month asking Sheppard to dismiss the case, Citizens Bank says O'Neill's claims have no basis in reality. The bank also contends that his suit is retaliation for the bank's trying to collect more than $60 million O'Neill owes for loans connected to the Uptown Worthington project.

In its unsparingly critical brief, Citizens asserts that "behind this facade of a massive, baseless damage claim and overheated, false accusations lies a jumble of patently defective legal claims."

The 87-page document, signed by Robert C. Heim, a lawyer with Dechert L.L.P. representing Citizens Bank and Citizens Financial Group Inc., accuses O'Neill of fabricating "from thin air" future financial obligations by Citizens to the $700 million Worthington development.

In the event Sheppard does not throw out the suit, Citizens has asked that O'Neill be limited to a bench trial, contending that he waived the right to jury trials as part of his financial agreements with the bank.

No more amiable is the 108-page response to the bank's brief filed Tuesday on behalf of O'Neill and his O'Neill Properties Group L.P.

"This case is about the fraud and other wrongdoing of a bank and its parent companies that destroyed the Worthington Project - at a time when it was performing ahead of expectations and was slated to create more than 14,000 jobs," wrote lawyer Steven M. Coren of Kaufman, Coren & Ress P.C.

Citing advice from his lawyers, O'Neill - who has been revitalizing old industrial properties for higher-end residential and office purposes for more than 30 years - declined to comment on the suit and anything having to do with Uptown Worthington.

He took the time, however, to plug his latest creation along the revitalized Conshohocken waterfront - the $60 million Londonbury at Millennium.

O'Neill played host to grand-opening festivities at the partially completed 309-unit upscale apartment complex Thursday. Its construction site was the source of the fast-moving fire in August 2008 that spread to the adjacent Riverwalk at Millennium complex, destroying two apartment buildings there.

As a developer with a reputation for bragging about his work, O'Neill's silence on Worthington is particularly extraordinary as the site is about to celebrate its first completed spaces. A Wegmans Food Market is scheduled to open there July 18, followed by a Target store July 25.

Whether anything else will be built, and when, is unclear.

As proposed in 2002, the 106-acre project at the former Worthington Steel plant along Routes 202 and 29 was to include 1.6 million square feet of housing, shops, entertainment venues, a hotel, and high-value office space. More than $100 million in federal, state, and local government funding was committed for phased-in distribution as the effort advanced from land acquisition and site development to construction (known as the vertical phase), with $150 million more in the works.

So far, less than 300,000 square feet has been built - the Wegmans and Target stores. On Wednesday, white PVC solid-panel fence was being installed just past the Target parking lot to block shoppers' views of the acres of still-undeveloped ground.

Most of Uptown Worthington consists of bulldozed dirt now sprouting grass, on which sit piles of pipe and outlet boxes, and a few construction and marketing trailers.

Wegmans and Target built their own stores. O'Neill provided the infrastructure improvements, including parking lots and lighting, and the widening of Matthews Road, Routes 29 and 30, and the ramps from Route 202 that lead directly to Uptown Worthington's entrance.

In November, Citizens Bank secured a $61 million judgment against O'Neill in Montgomery County Court for default on an office-construction loan for Uptown Worthington.

In December and January, the bank followed that with two more judgments, totaling $3 million, in connection with the incomplete Horizon Corporate Center, a 101-acre office/retail/restaurant complex in Bensalem.

In his lawsuit, O'Neill contends that Citizens Bank's alleged campaign to renege on financial agreements, interfere with his existing and prospective business relationships, and defame and disparage him began in late summer or fall 2008, when Citizens Financial Group, the bank's parent company, and the company that ultimately took it over, Royal Bank of Scotland Group P.L.C., "started to collapse under the weight of billions of dollars of soured investments and were experiencing a significant liquidity crisis."

In its motion to dismiss O'Neill's claims, Citizens has accused him and his company of trying "to sue their way out of clear legal obligations, obstruct Citizens Bank's lawful efforts to collect on its judgments, and set Citizens Bank up as an insurer of the havoc wreaked by a bad economy on Mr. O'Neill's real estate projects and Mr. O'Neill's failure/inability to secure the necessary financing for his projects."

In their response, O'Neill's attorneys accuse Citizens Bank of having "twisted the facts." They contend the bank never had the ability to commit to a project of Uptown Worthington's scale, and that its April 2008 decision not to provide financing for the vertical phase - after allegedly expressing an interest in doing so - essentially scared off other banks from wanting to get involved.

Citizens Bank maintains it never made any commitment to O'Neill for future construction financing, noting that when he was pursuing such funding "the economy was melting down."


Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.

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