The Saga of 223 Water Street

Artists vs. Workers vs. Landlords on the Brooklyn Waterfront

"In the early days, if push came to shove, I could always go to Ted's office and cry, and he'd peel off five $100 bills and say, 'Get some new windows; I know the fumes are bothering you,"' recalls Masters. Masters says Mestel gave her money when her marriage fell apart, and took her to ball games.

In 1982, the city passed the loft law, straining loftlord/tenant relations. By 1988, Mestel made a hardship application to the city's loft board, arguing that the high-hazard chemicals his factory required made it economically impossible to safely use the building as both a factory and residence. It took the loft board eight years to deny his application.

Trouble on Water Street escalated on July 19, 1993, when the fire department vacated eight of the 24 lofts for poor fire egress. The origins of the order are in dispute. "Marsha started trying to get rid of us," says Masters. "She and her brother were taking over the business, and decided that real estate was more lucrative" than making cabinets--if the rent-protected tenants were ousted.

Egeth calls the suggestion ludicrous: "You don't go call city agencies in on yourself; it's like asking the vampires in." She says a fire department memo listing 223 Water as a "worst nightmare" fire scenario sparked the inspection. "The fire department came down here and got hysterical." Egeth says her brother is no longer associated with the business. He could not be reached.

By the end of July, the tenants sued Mestel to force him to make repairs that would rescind the vacate order. They went on rent strike, and the uneasy relationship became unbearably acrimonious. In 1994, Horizon workers attended a loft board meeting carrying signs saying "Protect Minority Workers Not White Tenants." Shortly after, a newsletter circulated among loft tenants citywide reported that the "stalwart minority workers have taken to harrassing the [loft] tenants by slashing their tires and assaulting them at knifepoint...." Things so devolved that Masters still believes Rodriquez pulled the knife--even though he denies it, says he was not in the neighborhood at the time, and was detained by police but never charged.

The ugliness continued into 1995, when Masters, then working as a neighborhood environmental watchkeeper, was ticketed for illegal dumping. Masters says after a street fair celebrating environmentalism, she put several bags of trash, including recycling brochures, on the curb. Horizon employees called the city's sanitation department, and the ticket was issued. But at a hearing, the employee who lodged the complaint acknowledged that he had helped Masters deposit the trash, then called in the complaint. Masters was fined $200, and says Horizon faxed information about the incident to various news organizations, including Geraldo Rivera.

Masters got the watchkeeper job through previous work at the office of Brooklyn city councilman Ken Fisher; in fact, two other former Water Street loft tenants also worked for the councilman. Egeth and Rodriquez say Fisher intervened regularly on behalf of his employees. "One person in City Hall told us they think of this as the...building where Fisher's workers live," says Egeth. Indeed, a fire-department memo to then commissioner Howard Safir bothered to note that one tenant "works for Councilman Fisher's office." And Egeth says that after tenants were vacated, Fisher pulled together a meeting "with a long table full of enough politicians to get any loan or permit you'd need."

Masters acknowledges that she used her former boss's office to reach out to the top. "We got a meeting together with all these commissioners partly because we said, 'We're calling from Ken Fisher's office."'

Fisher himself says he facilitated meetings about the building--which is in his district--but denies he did anything inappropriate. The fire department stopped vacating the lofts after the first eight were emptied, leaving people who worked for Fisher. Asked if he intervened, Fisher says, "I wish I had that kind of power. The fact is the fire department was very clear that they would not force people out of their homes unnecessarily. What's happening here is that these people at the factory saw that the area would gentrify and they wanted to develop it. Now, they blame everyone except themselves."

By October 1995, Brooklyn housing court judge Gustin Reichbach ordered Mestel to file plans with the city that would allow the vacated tenants to return. Mestel filed twice; he was twice rejected. In July 1996, however, the loft tenants submitted their own plans, and won approval. In the meanwhile, Mestel had begun negotiations to sell the warehouse to Gutman. In January 1997, Gutman bought it for $975,000. In April, Reichbach found Mestel in contempt for failing to follow his order to restore the vacated tenants.

With a new owner and city-approved plans to accommodate both residents and a factory, the problems of 223 Water would seem to be over. Not so.

"You ask me what my plans are, and I say, I don't even know if I'm going to end up having that building," Joshua Gutman told a reporter late last month. "I didn't realize how bad the problems were. It's a nightmare, this building. But I can tell you one thing: I'll send you a $100,000 check to get rid of it. You take it."

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