The Fire Down Below


First, the residents in a pair of DUMBO lofts are evacuated because of unsafe conditions. Next, the landlord’s attempt to change the building’s zoning to permit luxury apartments fails. Then, a week later, the building, along with an adjoining warehouse, burns down.

Although the fire department wouldn’t say whether they were exploring the possibility of arson, one fire marshal, Jack Delancey, confirmed that he was part of an investigation into the fire, along with agents from the police department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. The name of his team? The New York City Joint Arson Task Force.

Neither Joshua Guttman, principal owner of the demolished property, nor his lawyer, Israel Goldberg, returned repeated phone calls from the Voice.

The fire, at 247 and 255 Water Street, broke out in the early morning of February 18 and took more than 10 hours to bring under control. The buildings were empty at the time: Commercial tenants had left a few weeks earlier; residents had moved out long before. But extinguishing the blaze took 168 firefighters, at least five of whom were injured.

Former tenants describe 247 Water Street as a labyrinth of gerrymandered apartments, free-spirited inhabitants, and amazing deals. When she left three years ago, writer Jana Martin was paying $1,400 a month for a 1,200-square-foot penthouse and a rooftop garden. The only problem was the landlord. “He did all the electrical work himself, all the plumbing himself,” Martin said. “I don’t think anyone was licensed.” (For the record, she is not one of the neighbors who spoke with arson investigators.) The 60-odd tenants were willing to make do with the makeshift condition of their spaces. Then, much to the displeasure of the residents, the city buildings department rushed in one Friday in December 2000 and evacuated the building, because the fire exits were blocked.

A handful of tenants returned a few months later. That’s when trouble began. One resident reported seeing building workers spreading six bags of trash throughout the hallways. Others say that door locks were smashed, the elevator power was cut, and insulation was strewn about, apparently to encourage rats and mice to nest. The tenants sued, and then settled two years ago, agreeing to vacate for about $35,000 each.

Guttman’s official record is spotty, although the city never succeeded in changing his ways. In 1995, for instance, the company he set up to own the building paid a $350 fine for erecting two shacks on the roof without a permit. A year later, it paid an $800 fine for the same structures. Three years after that, the shacks remained and the fine increased to $2,500. Guttman still hasn’t paid it. Nor did the Department of Buildings follow up for two years, though records show inspectors returned to the same address to investigate numerous other complaints. Spokeswoman Ilyse Fink explained that it has only been two years since the department established a system to reinspect buildings with serious infractions, and that older citations have not been included. She added that, had the department known that shelters were occupied, the department would have reacted more swiftly.

Because the building was in a manufacturing zone, the tenants lived in the building illegally under commercial leases. In order to cash in on DUMBO’s emergence as the new Soho, Guttman would have had to get the zoning amended to residential and offer proper leases. That’s what he’d been trying to do when, on February 11, Community Board 2 recommended against allowing the zoning change in a 35-1 vote. The board received Guttman’s letter withdrawing the re-zoning request on the day before the fire.

It’s unclear whether the fire makes it any easier to convert the building into luxury living. Guttman could go a different route, asking for a zoning variance before the Board of Standards and Appeals. He could argue that it is a hardship to erect a manufacturing building in a neighborhood where condominiums are the new industry. But the board’s executive director, Pasquale Pacifico, warns, “Getting a variance is a difficult process.”

So far, Guttman has not been charged with a crime in connection with the fire.