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Signature Place developer sued over sale of Tampa apartment complexes

The developer of St. Petersburg's beleaguered Signature Place condo tower faces more legal action — this time over two Tampa apartment complexes.

A California firm has sued two of Joel Cantor's companies, alleging they quashed contracts to sell the complexes, then refused to return $1 million in deposits.

San Diego-based Pacifica said that it "is ready, willing and able" to proceed with the sale but that Cantor is trying to force it to pay more. Cantor said Tuesday that the lawsuit is part of Pacifica's "nonstop haggle" since January to lower the purchase price and buy time to arrange financing.

"The lender won't approve, so I don't know what to do," Cantor said. He said he would return the deposit if Pacifica dropped its suit.

Cantor has owned the two complexes — Westminster Chase, in the Interbay area, and Willow Brooke, near the University of South Florida — since the early 1990s. His name also appeared at the time on corporate records of some of the decrepit apartments that his father, Irwin, and older brother, Stephen, had bought in the Tampa Bay area for little or no money down.

Irwin and Stephen were indicted in 1993 on federal charges stemming from their real estate dealings. Joel, who had just graduated from business school, was never charged and denied wrongdoing. He went on to develop Signature Place, the 36-story condo tower in downtown St. Petersburg that has been beset with problems since it opened six years ago.

In its lawsuit filled in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, Pacifica said Cantor agreed to sell the two Tampa apartment complexes for a total of $28.14 million. The deal was contingent on Pacifica assuming the existing mortgage.

Pacifica said it "diligently pursued" assumption of the loans until the lender abruptly terminated negotiations on July 29. The next day, Pacifica received a letter saying Cantor was canceling the deal for breach of contract.

Pacifica, which is seeking damages and return of the $1 million it put in escrow, owns properties in India, Mexico and the United States. Among its holdings are Bridgewater Place Apartments in northeast St. Petersburg.

"They are a seasoned company, supposed to be a good company," Cantor said. "I want to give them their money back, but they won't release their lawsuit."

He said Pacifica recently sold one of its holdings and potentially faces "a big tax liability" unless it soon reinvests the proceeds in another property. "They identified mine to buy," Cantor said.

Pacifica's attorney declined to comment.

Records show that Cantor bought the 230-unit Westminster Chase in 1990 and the 248-unit Willow Brook in 1991, not long after he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton school.

Cantor, now 51, was considered the "whiz" kid of a family that had drawn scrutiny over its convoluted apartment deals and suspicious fires at several complexes, according to a 1993 story in the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times.

Some of the fires were ruled accidental, but the FBI investigated one, a blaze at the run-down Morrison Court Apartments in Tampa's Hyde Park that left 40 people homeless.

In 1993, Irwin and Stephen Cantor were indicted on federal charges of bankruptcy fraud, money laundering and conspiracy. (The indictment gave no hint of any wrongdoing related to fires.) Frustrated bankers, who wanted to foreclose on many of the apartments, complained that the Cantors milked the properties while hiding behind bankruptcy laws.

Irwin Cantor was sentenced to 3½ years in prison for conspiracy to conceal assets. Stephen Cantor was sentenced to six months of home detention for perjury. Neither Cantor could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Joel Cantor, who was not named in the indictment, said Tuesday that his father had put his name on the ownership records of some of the apartment complexes "because I was sort of the clean one" in the family.

"I was very upset, I hired a lawyer and I spoke to authorities, and they said, 'We know you have nothing to do with it,' " he said. "From that day on, I'm never speaking to my brother."

Cantor said he still has contact with his father because "you've only got one dad in the world.''

"I keep my affairs completely separate,'' he added. "I don't invest with him. My reputation is paramount."

When Cantor announced Signature Place in the mid 2000s, at the height of the real estate boom, his father was among a group that put $325,000 down on a $3.255 million unit. They later sued to recoup their money on the grounds that the project had been "materially altered" from the original plans.

As condo prices plunged after the crash, Cantor was hit with similar lawsuits from many other prospective buyers, most of whom either got their money back or bought at reduced prices, court records show.

Cantor, along with the architect, engineer and builder, is being sued by the Signature Place Condominium Association. The suit alleges that the $158 million condo tower is rife with construction and design flaws, including stucco that could be ripped off in high winds. Unit owners are being assessed $8.7 million for repairs.

Cantor said he paid $1.2 million for experts to monitor all aspects of construction. He thinks the extent of problems has been "vastly overestimated'' by lawyers "hoping for a big win."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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