NEW YORK >> Over the opposition of lawyers for a company owned by President Donald Trump, state Supreme Court Judge Eileen Bransten ruled today that a condominium on the Upper West Side could remove the bronze letters spelling out his name from its 46-story building.
The ruling opens the door for the 377 condo owners at 200 Riverside Blvd. to formally vote on whether to keep or remove the T-R-U-M-P letters that have adorned the building, between 69th and 70th streets, for the past 19 years.
Reading a 12- page document from the bench, Bransten repeatedly rejected, dismissed or found the Trump lawyers’ arguments to be unpersuasive and granted summary judgment to the condominium’s board.
The ruling came in response to a request in January by the board, asking the judge to declare that a licensing agreement between the building and DJT Holdings, one of Trump’s companies, that gave the condo the right to use the Trump name on its facade, did not require it to use the name.
After Trump was elected president in 2016, a straw poll of building residents found that two-thirds of the 253 condo owners who participated wanted to remove the name, while 23 percent wanted to keep it. But a lawyer for a Trump subsidiary sent a letter promising to file suit if the board took any action.
In the letter, Trump’s lawyer, Alan Garten, said that if the condo made any effort to remove the Trump lettering, Trump would “commence appropriate legal proceedings to not only prevent such unauthorized action, but to also recover the significant amount of damages, costs and attorney’s fees.”
That was no small matter in the minds of many condo owners. Trump has a reputation as a vigorous if not always victorious plaintiff and defendant whose determination to drag out a court fight could cost a fortune.
Trump, for instance, spent 15 years fending off a class-action lawsuit over the use of 200 undocumented Polish workers at his first signature luxury building, Trump Tower. He settled the matter in 1998 in a once secret settlement in which his opponents essentially got everything they had originally asked for, $1.375 million.
Trump, however, did not admit any wrongdoing.
And the battle over the T-R-U-M-P letters at 200 Riverside may not be over. Amanda Miller, a spokeswoman for the Trump Organization, called the judge’s decision both “unprecedented” and “limited to a technical issue.”
In a sign that the Trump Organization will challenge Bransten’s ruling, Miller said the company was “confident that the appeals court will conclude otherwise.”
Marti Frucci, a resident of 200 Riverside who rents her apartment from the owner, said she is following the debate closely because she may buy an apartment there in the future.
“I don’t think it adds anything to the building,” she said of the Trump brand. “There are a lot of us who cringe when people associate the building with his name.”
Still, some residents are concerned about being ensnared in costly and lengthy litigation.
“I would rather the building spend money on a long gestating renovation project than this litigation,” said a longtime resident, who asked for anonymity because feelings are running hot in the building.
The March 2000 licensing agreement was made in the early days of Trump’s effort to establish the Trump brand.
The agreement identified Trump in the first sentence as a “worldwide renowned builder and developer of real estate who enjoys the highest reputation in these fields among others.” And it granted the condominium owners the continued use of the Trump name for $1, forever.
The Trump lawyers have argued in court papers that the consideration that flowed to Trump was not simply a single dollar, but rather the “assurance” that the building would be named Trump Place “in perpetuity.”
Bransten, following in the path of federal judges who have recently confounded Trump in court on immigration issues, found that the four-page licensing agreement between Trump and the condominium gave the condo permission to use the Trump name but in no way requires the owner to use it. Therefore, nothing prevents the board from taking it off the building.
The board plans to conduct a formal vote of owners to decide the matter. The board has estimated that it would cost about $19,000 to remove the letters and another $23,000 to wash the facade of the building afterward.
The once ubiquitous Trump brand has become divisive since Trump entered the presidential campaign. At the same time, Trump branded buildings in New York have lagged behind the luxury market, selling for about 6.6 percent less than the average Manhattan condominium in 2017.
Condo owners at the Trump Parc in Stamford, Connecticut, are debating a similar move as the owners of 200 Riverside Blvd. The silver T-R-U-M-P letters were pried off a troubled hotel and residential condominium in Panama City earlier this year. The Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto was renamed the Adelaide.
The Trump name was clipped off the Trump Soho, a condominium hotel in Manhattan. And three rental apartment buildings just south of 200 Riverside excised the Trump name from the building and the staff’s uniforms without any repercussions after Trump was elected president.
But the Trump company had apparently hoped to stem the tide at 200 Riverside.
Outside the courtroom, Lawrence S. Rosen, a lawyer for Trump, said of the judge, “she got it wrong but we respect her decision.” He insisted that removal of the signage would require approval by two thirds of the condo owners, rather than a simple majority, an issue Bransten did not address.
Further, Rosen said that residents in the past had seen the Trump brand as valuable, something they were willing to pay for.
The licensing document was signed in 2000 by Trump and Paul Davis, president of the board of managers at 200 Riverside. But Davis did not own a condo in the building. He was chief executive of Hudson Waterfront Associates, a company created by the Hong Kong billionaires who owned the land on which the project was being built and oversaw the development.
Harry Lipman, a lawyer for the condo board, said, “We’re pleased, obviously,” but declined further comment.