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Over in Chelsea, the commotion surrounding the transformation of the Limelight into Estate, housed in another landmark building, was equally intense. Shouting matches between the main business partnersMarvisi, the widely liked John Blair, and 32-year-old real estate tycoon Ben Ashkenaziwere common during the reconstruction period. Initially, Marvisi wasn't even supposed to be part of the deal. But he came on board after he offered the landlord Ashkenazi $400,000 to cover back property taxes owed by the previous owner, Peter Gatien.
When Blair, the city's leading gay-party promoter, bought the Limelight (the business, not the building) for $1.1 million in bankruptcy court, he had no idea that Marvisi had cut a side deal with Blair's partner in the Flatiron Group (which also included Ashkenazi's wife, Deborah, Blair's associate Jay Janos, and Russian builder Joseph Klaynberg). When he found out, Blair was furious. For years, Marvisi had tried to lure Blair to work at Exit, but he always refused because of Marvisi's reputation. But Ben Ashkenazi, worried that Blair didn't know how to throw straight parties, insisted that Marvisi remain a part of the project. Marvisi persuaded him that he could turn the club into a runaway hit by bringing in the biggest DJs in the world.
"He told Ben that he could remodel the space to become the most prestigious nightclub in New York City," said an Estate insider. "It would become a bottle place, where high-class people would come in and spend $500 a pop on champagne. Ben believed Marvisi because he had two other successful clubs, Spa and Exit, and was about to open another one, Capitale."
The cost was $4.5 million to refurbish the old Limelight space. (Ben Ashkenazi put in $3 million, while the rest of the Flatiron partners contributed $1.5 million.) Marvisi was placed in charge of the rebuilding after he underbid Klaynberg, who wanted to refurbish the spot with union construction workers and carpenters. Marvisi convinced Ashkenazi that he could complete the job for half the price. How he was able to do that would later become clear. "Employing Mexicans and paying them off the books wasn't done with either the approval of John Blair or Ashkenazi," said a spokesperson for one of the partners. "They gave the money to Marvisi to reconstruct the place and they had no idea he was hiring illegal immigrants." During the renovation, the carpenters' union put a big inflatable rat outside the club in protest.
But after Marvisi took Ashkenazi to the opening of Capitale, where famous fashion model Heidi Klum was throwing a star-studded bash last Halloween, the young developer was hooked. Impressed by the mannequins and celebrities he met there, Ashkenazi returned to the Limelight convinced that Marvisi could turn Estate into a major money-spinner. "Ben came back thinking that Marvisi could walk on water," said the same Estate insider. "It was like he was infatuated with him. Basically Marvisi suckered him. Unlike Marvisi, Ben is not very streetwise. Before meeting Marvisi, he had no experience in the club world. But Ben only has himself to blame. He was warned about Marvisi in advance but he chose to ignore the advice."
Serious problems with Marvisi's personality began to emerge as early as Estate's opening night in November, when he got into a heated argument at the front door with the 13th Precinct's cabaret sergeant. The precinct commander had previously visited and said, "This place isn't ready to open. It's unsafe." The sergeant turned up wanting to know how Estate could be open, given his boss's safety concerns. Marvisi became angry because he thought the sergeant was busting his chops, and told him, "You can't touch me because nobody knows who I really am." Marvisi's activities are tough to pin down, perhaps because variations of his nameDavid H. Marvisi, Homayoun D. Marvisi, Homayoun D. Marzivi appear on his various driver's licenses.
"Marvisi has a big problem with authority," said an eyewitness to the confrontation with the sergeant. "He doesn't like being told what to do, and he doesn't like cops." Marvisi had been previously arrested in 2001 for trespassing in his own club, after Exit was temporarily shut down under the nuisance abatement law because of drug activity.
Further trouble ensued in December, when the vice squad paid an unexpected visit to Estate with a WABC camera crew in tow. Former Nassau County homicide detective John Dabrowski, hired by Blair to oversee anti-drug efforts at the disco, had allowed the crew to film the squad doing a walk-through, figuring it would be good publicity for the new venture, in addition to putting them in the good graces of the local cops. One of Marvisi's managers saw them, came running over and said, "This is a David Marvisi club. No one films in here without his permission." This was an unfortunate revelation, since at the time Marvisi's involvement in the club was supposed to be a secret. Much to the embarrassment of the cops, the manager insisted that the news crew shut down their cameras and leave the place straightaway. John Blair was incensed that the cops had been needlessly antagonized. Given the scandal-scarred history of the space, Blair knew it was essential to maintain good relations with the local precinct if he was going to keep the liquor license he and Ashkenazi had spent $300,000 in legal fees getting transferred over from Gatien.