In June 2006, Joshua Guttman received the green light to demolish what was left of the historic Greenpoint Terminal in Brooklyn — the complex that had burned in a 10-alarm fire, the city’s biggest blaze since Sept. 11. The damage to more than a third of the 16 buildings in the fire, which lasted for 36 hours, brought to a close a dream by neighborhood residents to preserve what was left of the old manufacturing plant.
Guttman is back in the spotlight, this time for issues unrelated to the blaze. He’s scheduled for a Feb. 16 pre-trial court date for violations predating the incident.
Some have accused the 58-year-old developer of profiting from the fire. Not so, says Guttman’s lawyer, Israel Goldberg. “The fire was a tragedy for everybody, and it has taken down the buildings that were initially intended for the development,” he said. Guttman “understood the value of the property because of its historical character,” Goldberg added pointedly.
Guttman also lost a fortune in the flames, said a professional close to the owner who spoke off the record.
The blaze at the Greenpoint Terminal was determined by fire department authorities to be arson, lit by a solitary man, Leszek Kuczera, who received a plea deal for the crime in December.
But for some residents and preservationists, the city’s approval of the demolition permits is troubling. They point to the demonstrably troubled record of a landlord with multiple tenant disputes and a stack of charges from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, and say the city administration has few legal mechanisms to prevent him from repeating past mistakes.
In addition, some preservationists wonder aloud why another historic building owned by Guttman, 247 Water Street in Dumbo, was also destroyed by fire.
If anything, the controversy over Guttman and his buildings serves as an object lesson of what can happen when a long-neglected, historically industrial neighborhood is rezoned by the city for mixed residential and commercial use (as was the case with the Greenpoint Terminal in May 2005). Suddenly, property values surge astronomically, bringing with them greater financial stakes for developers, and enormous attention and controversy from the public.
Guttman’s legal battles
After weathering suspicion that he had anything to do with the massive May 2006 terminal fire, Guttman and his partners will be facing 434 criminal charges with possible fines of $5,000 each by the Brooklyn District Attorney for not curing deficiencies cited on their terminal docks in 2006, prior to the blaze, according to Jonah Bruno, the DA’s deputy director of public information.
Guttman was originally notified that he needed to repair the piers associated with the six building lots of the Greenpoint District Terminal on January 21, 2005, but had failed to do so when the agency’s inspectors returned on March 30 that year, according to Bruno. A pre-trial conference is scheduled for Feb. 16 in Brooklyn Criminal Court, he added.
“We sat with the DA and we are confident everything will be resolved,” said Goldberg about the charges. “What we can and can’t do with the waterfront also has to do in large measure with what the state and federal government allows us to do,” he added, noting that he could not discuss the charges in detail for legal reasons.
Guttman was also served with a lawsuit in September 2006 for $36 million for structural construction defects and code violations by condo owners at a 58-unit conversion that he had completed at 50 Bridge Street in 2004. That building itself was the subject of more than 10 years of legal battles with tenants prior to the conversion, some of whom claimed they had been poisoned by toxic mold.
Guttman’s son, lawyers and press relations representative, Robert Zimmerman, responded to claims that Guttman is an erratic landlord and a careless developer who seems to attract litigation with his buildings.
“The publicized lawsuits represent one percent of his total tenants,” said Goldberg. “Many of our tenants have been with us for many years,” added son Jack Guttman.
The Greenpoint Terminal had been purchased by Guttman in 2001 for $24 million, but subsequent rezoning allowed him to build high-rise residential condos in place of the multi-structure complex. When the tract of 16 buildings went up in flames, many residents questioned whether Guttman paid someone to set the fire so he would not have to deal with conservationists intent on preserving the home offices of the old American Manufacturing Company.
For one, the city’s fire marshal Louis Garcia closed the case on the Greenpoint Terminal after Leszek Kuczera, a homeless man, was arrested and charged with arson. According to reports, Kuczera accidentally started the blaze when he tried to burn the insulation off copper wires by setting eight tires on fire. (He had allegedly hoped to sell the copper.)
The investigation into the fire at Guttman’s other building being considered for preservation, 247 Water Street, was also closed, according to Seth Andrews, spokesperson for the Fire Department.
But one of Guttman’s previous tenants, who received $38,000 in a buy-out of their loft lease at 247 Water just before it burned down, said they noticed the windows of the terminal buildings had been covered over with cement blocks just prior to the fire, raising questions about whether the fire was calculated.
Jennifer Givner, spokesperson for the Department of Buildings, said it is “standard procedure to block the windows of vacant buildings to prevent vagrants from entering and destroying the property, and to protect the building from weather deterioration,” and that no permit is required to do so.
At the time of the terminal fire, Guttman was reported to have been in talks to sell the complex to Baruch Singer, a notorious New York landlord, for $450 million. Guttman is still in litigation with Singer, who defaulted on his contract, according to Goldberg.
Singer was not available for comment at press time.
Until that case is resolved, the fate of the Greenpoint Terminal will be on hold. Prior to the litigation, the architectural firm Perkins Eastman had prepared a preliminary plan to replace the old structure with a 2.6-million-square-foot waterfront development featuring residential and commercial towers and a public park.
Guttman’s plans for the future
Those buildings could lend a futuristic and modern touch to a neighborhood that had been facing the deteriorating Greenpoint Terminal buildings as they lay empty for more than 50 years, said Jack Guttman.
The latest design offers 2,500 condo units in five buildings of various heights from 15 to 40 floors, in addition to river views down widened side streets, public access to a waterfront esplanade similar to the one at Battery Park City in Manhattan, and a doubling in size of the park that exists there now, said Aaron Schwartz, principal and director of Perkins Eastman. In all, the development would consist of about 2.5 to 3 million square feet.
The development would also host new retail shops in the lower floors and additional parking, said Schwartz.
Jack Guttman also described complex efforts the owners took to find ways to retain the bridges because they presented legal issues of ownership and mapping since they crossed streets. “We put a lot of work into trying to preserve it,” he said.
In keeping with community interests and zoning requirements, Schwartz said the tallest buildings would be neither at the river’s edge nor overwhelming the street-level buildings that are adjacent to the planned site. In addition, the firm has designed an area with piers for canoeing, and a marina for parking boats. Plans are also being discussed to create a museum in the location where the U.S.S. Monitor, one of the first U.S. Navy Ironclad boats, was built, said Goldberg.
Past loft experiences still haunting
Still, Guttman’s past seems to haunt him with stories that get passed around like a tray of drinks at a party. The persistence of the talk hints at how difficult it will be for him to shake his old image as the landlord who rented commercial lofts to tenants and experienced ensuing problems with both his tenants and his properties.
One former tenant in Guttman’s 247 Water Street commercial lofts said she had plenty of bad experiences with her previous landlord. She can’t believe he would be allowed to engage in any future construction. “He has always felt he was beyond the law,” said Anne McDonald, a previous tenant who described years of alleged nightmarish harassment by her ex-landlord, including the day she said his crew arrived with a crane and ripped the door off the front of the building.
Guttman also has a reputation ingrained among Brooklyn residents as uncaring and insensitive to the historical character of the buildings he owns, said one long-time resident who wished to remain anonymous. One example: how Guttman “butchered” the brick side of one building with garish yellow paint.
McDonald does not think the city has acted in good faith or provided enough measures for stopping landlords like the Guttmans from developing more properties until they can mend their ways. Yet as one person close to the Guttmans noted, “how many landlords or developers that you know don’t have legal issues?”
A private man with strong beliefs
The son of holocaust survivors from Poland who immigrated to Israel, Joshua Guttman came to Brooklyn in 1970 as an electrician and built his business from scratch, said his son. Supporters of Joshua Guttman described a man who contributes his profits to building schools for children in Israel, buying emergency ambulances and stocking hospital supplies in the country.
“My father just stocked the trauma units,” said Jack Guttman. “But no one is going to see the name on the defibrillator,” he added. The buildings Joshua Guttman donated will also not bear his name, Jack Guttman said.
Mindful of his community and their needs, last year Guttman provided an Orthodox family with a residence, so that the devout Jews would have a meeting place in Dumbo, according to Guttman’s son.
“There has been nothing like this ever before in Dumbo and finally we have a facility for people to meet,” said Jack Guttman.
He also described a man who lives in a neighborhood of doctors and lawyers, but prefers to stay at home and tend to his garden: “My parents live in an average house, and wear average clothing,” said his son.