U$A: A Squatter’s Last Stand at a Condemned Bronx Barn

Note from mainstream press

Mark Stagg, a Westchester County developer, has become one of the busiest builders in the Bronx, with an ability to overcome various obstacles to his many projects.

Last year, he hired Adolfo Carrión Jr., a former Bronx borough president, to join his company, the Stagg Group, to help work with local officials. The developer owns and manages 1,200 units in the Bronx, a combination of market-rate rentals and affordable units, and has plans to add about 2,500 more units.

But one current project has proved frustrating, not because of a zoning snag or community opposition, but because of a colorful, combative 76-year-old man who has been squatting on the property.

The man, Garland Roberts, an Army veteran and a longtime activist, is waging his battle against the developer from the stables of a condemned barn in the East Bronx, where he has been living for more than a year.

Last year, the Stagg Group unveiled a plan and appeared at the stable with a poster of a seven-story, 130-unit apartment building planned for the property. Construction was supposed to start in February but, so far, no work has been done.

Hoping to mount a lawsuit to stop the project, Mr. Roberts visits courthouses and New York City agencies to gather information and to file complaints.

“I ain’t going nowhere, and Stagg ain’t getting this property,” he said recently at the stable, which is on the eastern end of Pelham Parkway.

Mr. Carrión, an executive vice president at the Stagg Group, said Mr. Roberts was nothing but a trespasser. “He has no standing; he’s just there,” Mr. Carrión said. “It’s like putting a bed on someone’s property.”

Mr. Carrión, who ran for mayor in 2013 and served briefly as director of the Office of Urban Affairs in the Obama administration, said 20 percent of the units planned for the site would be reserved for affordable housing.

But Mr. Roberts claims that the property wound up in Mr. Stagg’s hands through improper means, involving a foreclosure auction and an illicit corporation. Mr. Carrión said that the sale was legal and that the barn would soon be demolished, though he did not offer an exact schedule.

“It takes time,” he said.

Mr. Roberts’s quixotic quest involves somehow winning control of the property and opening a therapeutic horseback-riding program for military veterans.

He has logged complaints with city agencies, accusing Mr. Stagg of having improper demolition permits, destroying Mr. Roberts’s electric meter and boarding up his entrance to the barn.

Far from vacating, Mr. Roberts has made the place a nearly impenetrable bunker from which he runs a one-man preservation campaign. He sleeps on a mattress and endured a frigid winter in the unheated, smelly stables, with no running water or sewage hookup.

He gains access to the barn by climbing through the upper half of a steel barn door that he secures with a padlock. Mr. Roberts said several attempts by the developer to lock him out of the building were unsuccessful. The electrical lines to his property were recently cut, and the barn entrance was boarded up. He promptly removed the plywood but has not gotten the electrical line repaired. (Mr. Carrión said the lines were cut for safety reasons.)
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Mr. Roberts had been paying for electricity and Internet service so he could use his computer to view city and legal records and issue news releases.

The barn bears a large “Horse Rides” sign and shutters with horse-head cutouts, but it is also scarred with graffiti and blown-out windows. The structure is riddled with cracks, and the city has placed a vacate order on the barn.

The barn and some dilapidated stables behind it are all that remain of a once-flourishing horseback-riding business that opened in 1962 and made use of local horse paths, which have now been closed to riders.

Mr. Roberts said he moved into the barn early last year, to help its former owner, Buster Marengo, hold on to the property.

Since 1996, Mr. Marengo, a Juilliard-trained pianist and a professed cowboy, had run a sizable boarding and riding operation, but had difficulty paying mounting taxes, utilities and fines.

Mr. Roberts said he began paying some of the bills, using his pension and Social Security benefits.

Mr. Marengo, who often performs in city subways and honed his classical repertoire on a keyboard in the stables, was living in the stables above Mr. Roberts along with his horse, Bronco.

Mr. Marengo has agreed to leave, Mr. Roberts said, and Bronco has been moved out, as have the four horses boarded until recently in the rear stables.

But Mr. Roberts remains, devising a seemingly endless set of legal tactics to challenge the development, including claiming that it contains toxins, asserting squatters’ rights and saying that the property’s geology cannot support Mr. Stagg’s building.

In making yet another argument for why the development needed to be stopped, Mr. Roberts said he had found maps showing that the property was Native American land dating to before the Pequot wars.

Saying that he had found Native American artifacts on the grounds, Mr. Roberts pulled a palm-size stone from his pocket and insisted it was a pounding tool. “This alone will shut it down,” he said. “This is the rock that’s going to sink Goliath.”

Mr. Stagg, who did not respond to several messages left at his office, has gotten mixed reviews among local officials regarding his projects.

The Rev. Richard Gorman, the chairman of nearby Community Board 12, said Mr. Stagg accepted city tax abatements to erect two affordable housing projects in the board’s district in recent years and was going to allow them to be used to house homeless people, but local officials objected.

“He’s buying up every available space in the Bronx,” Father Gorman said, “but if he’s really into working with the community, he should meet the community and clearly explain how his buildings are going to be used.”

But Dustin Engelken, the district manager for Community Board 7, said that his board had met with Mr. Stagg about several buildings he was constructing on Webster Avenue and made clear its concern that he might similarly try converting them into homeless housing. Mr. Stagg said he would not, Mr. Engelken said, and since then, “everything I’ve asked the Stagg Group to do, they’ve done.”

Many local homeowners oppose the bulldozing of the stables, and say a large residential building will diminish open space and street parking, cause traffic congestion and “ruin the tranquillity of Pelham Parkway,” Gene DeFrancis, director of the Allerton Merchants Association, said.

He said many local residents regard the stables as a landmark worthy of preservation or conversion into a community park.

Mr. Roberts was raised in Brooklyn and attended Brooklyn Technical High School and served in the Army during the Vietnam War. He worked as an electrician and electrical engineer but devoted himself to tenant and civil rights causes, such as organizing black Muslims against local drug dealers in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the neighborhood where he grew up.

He wears camouflage outfits and Army boots, and his circuitous and relentless conversation style can be maddening.

“He’s a genius bordering on insanity,” said his younger brother, Calvin Roberts, 71, a film technician based in San Francisco.

Ever since childhood, he said, “Garland would pick up a cause and run with it.”

“He’s a real crusader, a David who’s gone after a lot of Goliaths,” he added. “The problem is that he still thinks he’s 19 going on 20.”

Garland Roberts said he had been threatened in recent months by Mr. Stagg’s workers — a claim Mr. Carrión denied — and that he had a network of military veterans at the ready to guard the place with legally permitted firearms.

“If he wants to get tough, fine,” Mr. Roberts said. “We’ll turn it into the O.K. Corral.”