At first glance it seems like one nondescript building among scores in South Williamsburg, a three-story brown-brick property housing a small retail store and a couple of apartments above.
But in Hasidic real estate circles, the 3,500-square-foot structure at 199 Lee Avenue is legendary. Hundreds of landlords from the Orthodox community, who collectively own thousands of apartments in Brooklyn’s fastest-growing neighborhoods, have mailboxes there. Every month, these mailboxes are used to collect rent checks and help cloak the identities of some of the city’s most mysterious property owners.
Since 1973, a grand total of 1,391 companies were registered to 199 Lee Avenue, according to The Real Deal’s analysis of Active Corporations records at the New York Department of State. Thirteen companies registered there last month alone. Not all these are real estate firms, of course, but hundreds are, including entities tied to Yoel Goldman’s All Year Management, Joel Gluck’s Spencer Equity Group, slain landlord Menachem Stark, his brother-in-law Abraham Bernat and his former business partner Israel Perlmutter.
“A lot of people don’t want the tenants or other people to know exactly where they are,” a source familiar with the building told TRD. “They want to hide themselves or their identities.”
On average, 199 Lee has one LLC for every 2.5 square feet of space. Many have nearly-ungoogleable names such as PS John LLC, Owners Solution, Inc and Italian Bambinos, Inc, the last of which was registered just two weeks ago at the building’s “Suite 192.”
“When I was brand-new as a lawyer, I would see 199 Lee on every paper I got,” said Michael Grinthal, a tenant’s attorney at MFY Legal Services. “I thought this must be a gigantic office building, until I saw it and just realized it was this corner mailbox store.”
The property is currently owned by Henny Katz, according to public records. Katz, who also owns a three-family home at 930 East 22nd Street in Midwood and a two-family home at 84 Penn Street in Williamsburg, couldn’t be reached for comment.
“It’s possible that 199 Lee Ave came to play the role it did due to word-of-mouth within the Satmar Hasidic community,” Grinthal wrote in a note to TRD. “My memory (which is certainly not comprehensive) is that the landlords who used PO boxes at 199 Lee came from that community, and certainly it wouldn’t be unusual for members of a tight-knit community to adopt similar business practices and vendors.”
Grinthal pointed to another LLC hub, at 46 Trinity Place in Manhattan, where Active Corporations data show that over 100 real-estate-related LLCs are registered. At that property, he said, many of the companies appear to be intertwined with one another, buying and selling one another’s’ properties. Those interrelationships, Grinthal suggested, might be another reason these hubs exist.
At 199 Lee, the mailboxes are housed inside Lee Avenue Shipping & Communication, a shipping and mobile phone store. In 2009, Melissa Mark-Viverito, then a City Council Member and now Speaker, tried unsuccessfully to push through legislation that would require landlords to register principal owners with the city. A photo posted by the City Council captured the bizarre scene: more than 350 brass mailboxes inside a cramped space.
Along with anonymity, 199 Lee offers convenience.The mailbox area is open 24 hours a day, a source said. Lee Avenue Shipping even operates a Twitter account, @199lee, with 198 followers, 13 of whom employ the name “mysteriously unnamed.”
The account religiously tweets “Mail is done,” once every day. The catch? It’s silent on Shabbat.