The Saga of 223 Water Street

Artists vs. Workers vs. Landlords on the Brooklyn Waterfront

Gutman says deteriorated conditions, a huge tax bill, and endless litigation came as a surprise to him. But a lease rider Gutman signed shows that he was aware of the conditions and a tax bill of at least $300,000, later amended to $560,000. Gutman's status as a major DUMBO landholder--residents say he controls more than a million square feet there, and records show he owns at least 18 other Brooklyn buildings--also casts doubt on his claims of ignorance.

And Gutman--who said he planned to have the factory leave, grudgingly allow the loft tenants to remain, and subdivide the remaining space for commercial use--was savvy enough to require Mestel to sign a lease rider on January 7, 1997 promising that Horizon would leave by June. After that follows a series of cat-and-mouselike documents: on January 10, representatives of Gutman and Horizon signed a letter saying the factory could stay. But just last month, Mestel and Gutman signed an agreement that Horizon would vacate by September 30. They later agreed to extend the deadline to October 15.

For the loft tenants, Gutman's ownership is already mimicking Mestel's: they are suing their landlord, and are on rent strike again. Earlier this year, Fisher held a meeting between tenants, a Gutman manager, and Rabbi David Neiderman, a leader of Williamsburg's orthodox Jewish community, since both the manager and Gutman are orthodox, in hopes of staving off litigation. The effort failed, and tenants charged in court that heat has been spotty, electrical and sewer lines have been broken, and 11 unoccupied lofts were the target of "wanton destruction." Gutman refuted the charges in an affidavit, saying he has promptly responded to a barrage of tenant complaints. The tenants, he added, "have not paid one cent...and raise new complaints to avoid paying rent."

In September, Gutman and the tenants drew up a stipulation, as yet unsigned, that calls for repairs and relies on Horizon moving out. At press time, Rodriquez was still hoping for a way to keep the factory open.

"We had terms to buy the business, we had an agreement on a lease," said Rodriquez, who rose from being a porter to vice president before he got a dismissal letter from Mestel last month. "Something went sour and now we all are getting punished."

Egeth herself is beyond placing blame. "If they want to make the Taj Mahal upstairs, we really don't care," says Egeth. "We just want to work. This whole thing is such an ordeal. Is it the end of the world? No. But is it the end of our little piece of it? Yes."

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