Pulver to get $1.1 million in Family Court settlement

A Philadelphia Parking Authority surface lot now occupies the proposed site of the new Family Court, to be built at 15th and Arch Streets. Construction is expected to take three years.
A Philadelphia Parking Authority surface lot now occupies the proposed site of the new Family Court, to be built at 15th and Arch Streets. Construction is expected to take three years.
Posted: October 26, 2010

A developer will get $1.1 million in state funds to walk away from a planned $200 million Family Court facility in Center City under a settlement that will clear the way for construction - even while investigations into the project continue.

Donald W. Pulver, a Conshohocken developer, will get the money in exchange for dropping his legal fight for control of the courthouse site at 15th and Arch Streets.

He and his partner, lawyer Jeffrey B. Rotwitt, were removed from the project by state Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille in May after The Inquirer reported that Rotwitt was on both sides of the deal. He had represented Castille on the project before becoming Pulver's partner.

The settlement, filed in federal bankruptcy court Monday, was greeted with relief by lawyers and advocates for women and children, who say their clients with divorce and abuse cases have suffered for years in dismal, dilapidated courtrooms.

They feared that a protracted legal battle would result in the loss of $200 million in state funds and squander a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

"We're not pleased to see more money go into the developer's hands, but I am pleased that a building we really need is going to move forward," said Catherine Carr, executive director of Community Legal Services.

"These courts service some of the most vulnerable people in the city," she said. "The conditions are just impossible, and it's been that way for years."

Construction of the 14-story courthouse is expected to take three years. The building, on what now is a Philadelphia Parking Authority surface lot, will be the largest public-works project in Philadelphia after the Convention Center expansion.

Pulver and Castille, who has personally supervised much of the project, both released statements that called the deal "a sensible resolution."

"It's very rewarding to know that the work we did here helped pave the way for a new building," Pulver said, adding that he would be available to help state development officials if they asked.

The settlement may not be the final word on the dispute, though.

With a consultant and the FBI still investigating, Philadelphia court officials insisted on a clause that would allow them to sue Pulver and his former codeveloper, Rotwitt, if there is evidence that money was misappropriated. Pulver, too, has rights to sue later.

Both Pulver and Rotwitt deny any improprieties and have said their partnership was transparent and fully disclosed.

Together, Rotwitt and Pulver received millions in court funds under a previous no-bid deal that Castille and court officials now allege was poisoned by a conflict of interest: Rotwitt, hired as the courts' real estate representative, was simultaneously being paid as Pulver's partner.

The head of one civic watchdog group criticized the deal, saying there would be no way to know whether the payment to Pulver was justified until the investigation was over.

"I think it's absolutely appropriate for people to be cynical about this result until they understand the back story," said Zachary Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy.

"It's an unfortunate example of the political game in Pennsylvania, where the ends are used to justify the means," he said.

All told, the courts paid out $12 million in fees - about half of that for a finished set of architectural plans - before the deal was canceled in May, after The Inquirer disclosed Rotwitt's dual role.

Pulver's company, Northwest 15th Street Associates, then filed a suit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to keep control of the site and the plans.

Children's advocate Frank P. Cervone said court officials had told him this summer that they were adamant about not paying Pulver more money.

But that changed as the lawsuit wore on and time began running out on the administration of Gov. Rendell, who has committed to spending $200 million in state funds to build the facility. Advocates feared the next governor would have different priorities.

"That's a tough way to play poker," Cervone said. But he said the deal was justified: "It's going to make a world of difference for children and families."

Now, Philadelphia's Family Court is split between an impressive but outdated building at 1801 Vine St. and a rundown former office building at 34 S. 11th St.

Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Scott F. Cooper, who also welcomed the settlement, said some women now have to hide from their abusers in stairwells.

Under the settlement, the state will provide the $1.1 million to Pulver to acquire the site, and step in as developer.

Pulver, developer of the Tower Bridge office complex in Conshohocken, will also drop his claim to the building's drawings and plans. The architects, from the firm of EwingCole, have agreed to accept $350,000 as final payment. An additional $99,000 will go to the Intech engineering firm.

The deal must be approved by Bankruptcy Judge Eric L. Frank. And, like other state contracts, it has to pass a legal review by the Attorney General's Office.

The agreement also contains a clause prohibiting the parties from making disparaging remarks about each other - unless they're made during an audit or government investigation.

Contact staff writer Joseph Tanfani at 215-854-2684 or jtanfani@phillynews.com.

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