Without Notice

Jacqueline Friduss/Rachel Wiseman

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“It is clear how you feel about the new front desk staff,” repeated Eli Ungar last Tuesday in the Kenwood Academy auditorium. Ungar, partner and principal of Antheus Capital LLC, directed his comment to a section of riled up Regent’s Park residents. On October 27, the building, located at 50th Street and Lake Shore Drive, was sold by Crescent Heights to Antheus, a New Jersey-based developer locally represented by its affiliate, MAC Property Management. The $160 million deal had been in the works since late August, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, but what that sale meant for the building’s employees remained unclear until 6pm on Thursday, October 27. At that time, Peter Richter, who had been the building manager for the past 23 years, carried his things out the front door.

“He exited the premises, and had a tear in his eye as he walked out,” recalls Brian Phillips, a doorman who has worked at Regents Park for five years. In spite of this bad omen, Phillips and Wes Allen, the other doorman on duty, remained at their posts until something strange occurred: a van of unfamiliar uniformed staff arrived at the building.

“There were quick introductions, some very friendly-seeming guys, and the next moment we were being bombarded with questions,” says Allen, who has worked at Regents Park for 19 years. “’How much does a cab cost to downtown? What does this button do?’” Phillips shakes his head, continuing, “I’ve always tried to show that I’m excellent at what I do here. But then a light bulb went off–I realized they were trying to get a crash course.”

At 7:50pm, the two doormen got a phone call from Richter. “He said that if we hadn’t gotten a job offer from MAC, we should come back the next morning at 8am to talk to Crescent Heights.” When they started to leave, one of the new arrivals tried to stop them, imploring, “Don’t go!” Then, Phillips recalls with disgust, he asked them if they liked the nearby gelato and offered some coupons in exchange for a lesson on how to operate the front desk.

The Crescent Heights employees returned the next morning to find their posts at the front desk filled by strangers, and a stack of papers notifying them that MAC would not take on their current contracts. Through September and October, Crescent Heights had given their employees only vague answers about what would happen to their jobs after ownership of the building was transferred. According to employee accounts of the events leading up to October 27, representatives from Crescent Heights told workers that MAC had “accepted” their contracts and that they would “probably” be extended–though, they maintained, “they didn’t know” for sure.

However, after the keys were turned over to MAC, about 50 employees were let go–including maintenance workers, security, garage attendants, and doormen. Coming in to work on the 28th, employees were met with a stack of dismissal letters. For some, those dismissal letters were the only form of notification they received. “I’m the bottom man here in terms of seniority,” Brian Phillips says, having worked for only five years at Regents. “But some of these guys put in 23 years and it was all taken from them in twelve hours.”

When Crescent Heights purchased the building from Clinton Management five years ago, the company decided to keep all the original staff. As a result, it was not anticipated that–as one resident calls it–a “hostile takeover” would occur. Although during this prior ownership transfer union members engaged Crescent Heights in collective bargaining, no such negotiations occurred between former employees and the new owners. MAC insists that it has fulfilled all contractual obligations with Crescent Heights–there was no clause in the buy-sell agreement that required the old employees to stay on at the building. Sister Mary Rosen, a longtime resident, expressed the views of many tenants when she told Ungar, “What’s legal is not always moral, and I don’t want to be complicit in a grave social injustice.”

On October 30, Regents Park residents–some of whom have lived there for three decades–came together in support of the terminated employees, flooding the lounge on the top floor. Over 90 percent of the buildings’ occupants signed a petition expressing their “disapproval of the unjust dismissals of [the] concierge, garage and maintenance staffs” who “have done an excellent job” and are viewed as “friends, confidants, and extended family members.” The petition calls for the reinstatement of fired staff, if MAC hopes to “maintain harmonious relationships with [its] residents.”

Antheus responded by flying Ungar out from New Jersey for the meeting at Kenwood Academy, where all the seats in the residents’ section were filled. The audience had to be reminded by Wallace Good, president of the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce and moderator of the meeting, that Hyde Park has “a tradition of sitting discourse,” and that all questions should be held until Ungar had said his piece.

Ungar began with a brief history of Antheus’s rapid rise since 2002, emphasizing his organization’s humble origins–from managing one building to owning almost a third of the real estate units in Hyde Park–and its contributions to the neighborhood. “We actively support numerous community organizations, including this school,” Ungar began. “We’ve paid for many of the seats you are sitting in, and given scholarships to many students.” He made promises regarding various improvements to the building, insisting on his commitment to “preserving Regents Park as superlative.”  With regard to the staff overhaul, he maintained that his company “followed the letter of the law,” but that “this was a complicated decision and not one [the company] entered into lightly.” He gave examples of how Antheus has “reached out to many former employees” and tried to place them in positions at other MAC properties.

Phillips, the former doorman, shot up from his seat in the second row and had to wait for cheers to subside before addressing Ungar. “My call to the Algonquin was not returned,” he said. “I suspect it’s because of my pro-Union affiliation.” The audience erupted into boos, compelling Ungar to reassure Phillips that his calls would be returned. Ungar reemphasized that Antheus has been making an effort to help out the Crescent Heights employees: some had been offered jobs, while those living in Regents received three months of free rent. One former employee, German García, received the rent voucher and a new job offer, but he declined. The new position came with a lower wage.

Ungar’s repeated promise that “the new staff will do superbly” if the residents “give them a chance” was met with both outrage and mockery. Resident after resident emphasized the closeness of the Regents Park community, the trust that was built over the years, and the existence of an extended family in the building. “You’re not going to succeed until you return that goodwill,” said Marly Rosenbush, a longtime resident.

Other tenants tried to communicate the new staff’s incompetence, decrying the “foolishness” of the new staff who “run around like chickens with their heads cut off,” unable to operate the handicapped doors and failing to fix broken sinks. Ungar responded: “We have worked hard over the last week and a half to understand the operation of the front desk, and I think we’re getting better.” More boos filled the auditorium.

Whether or not the transition was illegal, it may prove to have been a bad business move. “We’re going to obliterate your ratings for Regents Park,” said two suit-sporting law and business school students, referring to the building’s Google reviews. “We won’t stop until we make sure this building is empty.”

Phillips and other members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local One have been picketing every day outside the building since November 7. On Saturday morning, they were eating doughnuts and coffee–gifts from the residents. “You just missed it,” Phillips says, pointing to the backed up driveway. “Two elderly people crashed into the wall–you can see the dent there.” There was a delayed response time from emergency services, he says, adding, “The new staff gave the 5020-5050 S. Lake Shore Drive address, but the one normally given to emergency services is 5025 S. East End. Fire trucks and ambulances were circling around the building for a long time.” No one was hurt, but “imagine if it had been something more serious,” he tuts.

In response to a question over whether he thought Ungar would keep his word about the Algonquin job offer, Phillips shakes his head. Gesturing over to the building’s offices across the street, he claims, “They probably see me out here every day, and they don’t like my jacket.” Doug Ball, a SEIU union representative, adds that though the Algonquin has over 100 employees, only four of them belong to a union. “And that’s MAC’s only unionized location.”

Both SEIU Local 1, which represents the concierge, doormen, and maintenance, and Teamsters Local 727, which represents the garage attendants, plan to file charges against MAC for discriminating against unions in its hiring practices. Though the employees who were let go are both union and non-union, all of the new hires are “temporary employees hired through temporary firms,” according to Ball. “There’s not one union member in there.”

At Kenwood Academy last Tuesday, Ungar committed to responding to the residents’ demands within a week. Wednesday morning, picketers saw him speed off in a limo to the airport. As of press time, he still has not delivered a response about whether the old employees will be rehired.

Meanwhile, residents are fulfilling their promises: the online ratings for Regents Park have dropped, and community boards are buzzing with complaints, anecdotes, and open letters to Ungar. “We don’t need six large security guards to protect us from our FRIENDS,” one letter reads, referring to the security guards Antheus has hired to make sure the picketers don’t get rowdy. “Your security force does nothing other than intimidate residents from talking to, embracing, and supporting men that we consider family.” But from looking at the picket line, where  residents often stop for a hug or to talk, it’s clear that this family is doing its best not to be torn apart.

Disclosure: The author of this article is a resident of an apartment owned and managed by MAC.

2 comments for “Without Notice

  1. D. Warren
    November 17, 2011 at 3:31 am

    Thanks for such a clear and connected recap of the meeting and the issues at hand. The older I get, the more perplexed I am by the “new capitalist model” that says making money is not enough. You have to make MORE money every single year or you’ve somehow failed. Humanity and profitability don’t have to be at odds and, often times, they are not unless we imagine them to be so.

  2. John
    November 24, 2011 at 6:17 am

    Great article! This is really shameful behavior on MAC’s behalf and I hope they end up regretting it.

    And @D. Warren – I suppose MAC’s thinking is that they have to use the recession to their advantage now if they’re ever going to get a chance to destroy the good jobs that already exist and replace them with temp workers they can pay even less. But wow – talk about disgraceful!

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