By Anna Merlan
By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
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By Tessa Stuart
In the past, city officials have called antiques dealer Evan Blum a deadbeat who stiffed them for more than $100,000 in rent. But if a pending Blum scheme works out, they may have another name for him: partner.
That's because Blum, whose gigantic downtown warehouse of architectural remnants collapsed in Julytying up traffic, closing a subway station for days, and temporarily displacing hundreds of neighborsis making a pitch to develop more than 200,000 square feet of city-owned land in East Harlem. The parcels, being sold by the city's Economic Development Corporation (EDC), occupy four separate lots along 125th and 126th streets between Second and Third avenues. Blum's plan would build a glass-and-steel "Harlem Bazaar" including an auction house, an antiques market, and entertainment.
Blum's uptown warehouse, Demolition Depot, sits nearby on 125th Street near Third Avenue. The bazaar is among four proposals submitted to the EDC, which is expected to name a developer later this month.
Formally, the bazaar plan is being proposed by Blum's cousin and business partner, Ralph Stevens; Blum is considered the project's "visionary." That puts the antiques dealer in the ironic position of simultaneously suing and courting the city. In September, Blum's firm filed a lawsuit seeking at least $445 million from seven city agencies and one contractor for demolishing the century-old building at Houston and Second Avenue that housed his business, Irreplaceable Artifacts, which partially collapsed on July 13. The city is counter-suing, saying any damages "were caused in whole or part by the conduct" of Blum's business, where workers had taken down walls without a permit and continued the interior demolition in defiance of a stop-work order from the buildings department. The city is seeking a minimum of $4 million in damages from Blum's firm, Stardial Communications. A court conference is scheduled for April 5.
Blum insists the work that was being done at Irreplaceable Artifacts, where he was planning to open a café within the warehouse, did not cause the collapse. "We did absolutely nothing wrong; the only thing we did wrong was talking to you," Blum told the Voicethis week, referring to an August article on the collapse. "You made me look like a bum," Blum said. "I'm a triple-A person and you made me look like a dirtbag." That article ("Rubble Rouser," August 1, 2000) reported Blum's past dealings with city agencies, including his 1992 eviction from a city-owned Bowery lot after he failed to pay rent totaling $150,000, and that he owed city, state, and federal business taxes. "It's not fair whacking me twice," Blum said last week. "I'm trying to do something good for the city."
Blum said EDC rules prohibit him from revealing the details of the bazaar plan and that the agency reprimanded him for discussing it with The New York Times and the Observer. But he did call the Harlem Bazaar "the absolutely, unequivocally best thing that could happen to this area. It would create almost 800 jobs and bring money into the community. We have a fabulous thing going." Blum noted that the plan is not his venture but that of "a company I'm associated with." Blum spokesman Ron Goldstein said Stevens is the actual applicant to the city, and that Blum "is the visionary on the project."
The Harlem Bazaar is competing with three other proposals. One would bring the wholesale flower market, now located on 28th Street in Chelsea, to East Harlem. A second, submitted by the developers of the Harlem U.S.A. mall, would build a three-block shopping center. The third comes from the Blumenfeld Development Group, which is also trying to revive its plan for a nearby megamall on the site of an abandoned wire factory; it wants to build a Kmart on several EDC lots. The winning bidder can get tax breaks and investment credits because the land is in an economic development zone.
East Harlem Community Board chair David Givens said the board has not officially backed any plan, but he considers the bazaar the least evolved. "We've heard a verbal presentation from Blum, but he did not submit a formal plan to us, so it's really hard to comment," said Givens. "For the Kmart plan, we've seen blueprints; we've talked to Kmart about training opportunities. But from what little I've heard from Blum, he wants something like an open mall or market with people looking for antiques or items where you kind of walk around and haggle or something. I don't think it's something the community needs. We need jobsboth entry level and managerial. I'm not sure there is anything young people or teens can get out of an antique market, certainly not any career type of ventures. I mean, it's not the kind of business you can go into right out of high school."
In the downtown community where Blum ran Irreplaceable Artifacts, some residents consider him less than neighborly. When Blum first took over the building, he peeved the community by painting over a mural depicting the neighborhood's struggle against arson and real estate speculation. After the collapse destabilized the Cube, a low-income co-op next door, and forced tenants to relocate for 11 days, Blum brushed off Daily Newsreporter Juan Gonzales's questions about the welfare of the tenants. "They're worried about people's lives?" Blum asked. "What about my cats?" Blum's cats were thought to be inside the warehouse when it fell.