Three days after a massive fire at the Avalon at Edgewater displaced about 1,000 residents, the real estate company’s public relations firm suggested a list of upbeat, praise-filled talking points to the county’s top elected official, internal emails obtained by NJ Advance Media show.
There are no apologies to be found in the memo, nor does the email sent by Washington D.C.-based public relations firm Kreab to Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco’s communications staff on Jan. 23 acknowledge the challenges displaced tenants face in the wake of the 7-alarm fire, which officials say was accidentally caused by AvalonBay’s maintenance staff.
Instead, Kreab suggests that Tedesco praise the billion-dollar real estate trust for its efforts at his press conference later that day, according to emails obtained by NJ Advance Media through a public records request filed with the county.
“You learn a lot about a company and its people during challenging times — I can tell you AvalonBay really stepped up to the plate to support its residents, the town and others,” reads the first talking point suggested to Tedesco.
The second point requests that Tedesco say he’s been “very impressed with the 24/7 dedication and compassion of AvalonBay’s employees” and their willingness to cooperate with investigators.” The third talking point suggests that Tedesco say he’s “spoken with many of the displaced residents and they have generally been very supportive of Avalon’s efforts on their behalf, including funds to help with assistance, a dedicated call-in center to provide information and assistance with housing.”
Tedesco did not repeat any of the statements contained in the email during his joint press conference with Edgewater Mayor Michael McPartland. The county executive had invited top AvalonBay brass to speak at the press conference and take questions, but company officials declined to appear, spokeswoman Alicia D’Alessandro said.
“The fact that the county executive chose not to use them in the course of his public remarks speaks for itself,” D’Alessandro said when asked about the talking points email by NJ Advance Media. She declined to comment further on the email sent by Kreab.
AvalonBay has followed through on returning security deposits to the 500 or so permanently displaced residents, pro-rated their January rent bills, set up a dedicated hotline and offered $1,000 to help with short-term expenses, according to numerous tenants.
The company has also offered to reduce rent for tenants of the remaining River Mews building by 50 percent in February and 15 percent for the remaining lease terms, according to emails obtained by NJ Advance Media. Residents in the River Mews apartments will endure months of construction as crews demolish the smoldering ruins of the Russell Avenue building and potentially rebuild.
AvalonBay did not respond to questions posed by NJ Advance Media for this story. The director of public relations at Kreabs, Edmund Rhoads, hung up on a reporter when reached for comment on Friday.
According to Edgewater Police Chief William Skidmore, two AvalonBay employees were using an acetylene torch to repair a leaky pipe behind a first floor wall in the Russell Building when the blaze sparked. The chief said the maintenance workers were not licensed plumbers. Edgewater officials said the maintenance men didn’t call 911 until 15 minutes after the blaze sparked.
AvalonBay has been named in three negligence lawsuits filed by tenants of the scorched complex.
“I think it’s easy for the company to say they’ve stepped up,” said attorney Michael Epstein, whose Rochelle Park-based firm is representing several clients in a mass tort claim. “I think the people who have lost everything would strongly disagree.”
Epstein said the memo is “self-serving” and doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation.
“We have residents who had to move in with family, we have residents who had to move into hotel rooms, we had residents who had to frantically look to find new places to live. These people are effectively out on the street with no personal belongings and I don’t think they would necessarily agree with Avalon’s statements that they’ve ‘been generally supportive of Avalon’s efforts on their behalf.'”
AvalonBay’s offer to pro-rate January rent, return security deposits and amenities fees to displaced residents isn’t a gesture of generosity, it’s simply compliance with state law, Epstein said.
The $1,000 AvalonBay gave to residents of the torched Russell building helps with sundries but is “not a significant percentage of what most people lost,” according to the lawyer.
The company did donate $20,000 to the borough’s official gofundme account as it had pledged.
CEO Sean J. Breslin left a comment alongside the donation on the gofundme page, stating that the contribution was made on behalf of about 3,000 AvalonBay employees.
“We have been greatly moved by the outpouring of support for the residents of our Edgewater community and everyone else impacted by this tragic event,” Breslin said. “We thank everyone who has contributed to this fund and hope our collective contributions greatly help those in need.”
A publicly traded company, AvalonBay recorded revenues of more than $1.6 billion in 2014, according to its fourth quarter earnings report.
In a statement addressed to shareholders, AvalonBay said its losses on the Edgewater property, which also went up in flames in 2000, were minimal. Insurance will pay for most costs, the statement said.