Bill Gottlieb’s Secret: Developers Descend on His Vast Village Empire

William Gottlieb used to say that he learned real estate at the feet of Harry Helmsley. Decades ago, when Gottlieb was working as a Helmsley broker, the legendary mogul imparted a bit of wisdom that would stick with his pupil as he later assembled one of Manhattan’s largest and most curious real estate empires.

“At some point, Harry told him ‘Never sell,'” said Bernadene Weekes, who was Gottlieb’s companion for two decades before he died suddenly last fall at the age of 64.

Gottlieb followed that advice religiously. From the 1950’s until his death, he purchased more than 150 properties-restaurants and townhouses in the West Village, manufacturing spaces in the meat-packing district and tenements on the Lower East Side. And he never sold. Gottlieb became a neighborhood legend for his low rents, his laissez-faire maintenance and his eccentricities, like his threadbare clothes and beat-up station wagon.

But his business strategy paid off as the Village became gentrified and his holdings appreciated in value. Real estate professionals estimate that Gottlieb’s estate, now in the hands of his sister, Mollie Bender, is worth as much as $200 million.

Now, half a year after Gottlieb’s death, the West Village is gripped by rumors that his inheritors, facing a huge estate tax, may be ready to break with family tradition. First, reports surfaced that the family was on the verge of selling the entire estate for $200 million. On May 8, Edward Baquero, a developer with Landmark Development, told The Observer that the Benders had abandoned that plan and are currently exploring a joint venture to redevelop some of the prime real estate the family now owns. Representatives of the Bender family, meanwhile, steadfastly denied that anything’s afoot.

All over town, brokers and developers eager to gobble up his dilapidated but precious properties have been working the phones, looking for scraps of information about the pending deal. As was so often the case with the mysterious Bill Gottlieb, they’ve found few answers and much intrigue.

“It’s a mystery to everybody,” said Andrew Gerringer, a development marketing consultant for Douglas Elliman Real Estate.

After the New York Post , citing “sources close to the matter,” reported on April 25 that the family was on the verge of selling the entire Gottlieb portfolio, and named three finalists in the bidding, Mr. Gerringer’s phone started ringing off the hook with calls from developers miffed that they hadn’t even heard the properties were on the market. He made some calls to the bidders named by the Post . “They said it was all a bunch of garbage, that they never talked to [the estate] about it.” Two of the three companies said the same thing to The Observer . A third could not be reached for comment.

“Nobody that I spoke to seems to know a lot about this thing, we don’t know where the talk is generating from,” Mr. Gerringer said.

Anyone looking for an explanation is unlikely to get one from Gottlieb’s heirs. Neither Mrs. Bender nor the Gottlieb estate’s present attorneys (the family has hired and fired several as the case has made its way through probate court) returned calls for comment.

A reporter who visited the Hudson Street offices of William Gottlieb Real Estate on May 8 was told that both Mrs. Bender and her son Neil were on a conference call, which was expected to last “several hours.” When the reporter said he’d be happy to wait, Mr. Bender leaned out from behind a door and told his secretary to call the police.

Prior calls placed to Mr. Bender were returned by one Harris Knott, who identified himself only (and repeatedly) as “le Grand Fromage” of the Gottlieb estate. Several Gottlieb associates said they had never heard of Mr. Knott.

“Nothing has been sold, nothing is in contemplation of sale, there’s no likelihood of anything being sold,” said the caller who identified himself as Mr. Knott. “We will continue in Bill Gottlieb’s tradition, which was to maintain a high level of excellence in all capacities and the like.”

Asked who, then, might have told the Post the exact opposite, Mr. Knott responded with a question of his own. “Remember when they said Paul McCartney was dead?” He then excused himself from the phone. He did not return several follow-up calls.

A Mogul With a Beater

The way the sale, or nonsale, of the Gottlieb estate has been conducted has hardly been orthodox. But then little about Gottlieb’s life or real estate business was.

Associates remember him as a creature of the old Greenwich Village, the fast-receding enclave of seedy bars, starving artists and dedicated eccentrics. Tom Elghanayan, president of the Rockrose Development Corporation, remembers that 30 years ago, if he wanted to do business with Gottlieb, he had to seek him out behind the bar at the Inca, a dive Gottlieb owned.

“You figured this guy was a dishwasher or something like that. It turned out he was the owner of the restaurant,” Mr. Elghanayan said. “If you ever wanted to make a deal with him, you had to go at night, sit at the bar and shoot the shit with him.”

Ms. Weekes, his companion, first met Gottlieb in the 1970’s, while working at one of his restaurants. Gottlieb used to work occasionally at them as well, she said, but real estate was his first love. “He was in the office every day at 7 a.m.,” she said. “It was like a religion with him.”

By then, Gottlieb was presiding over his empire from a nondescript two-story building on Hudson Street, with help from his sister, Mrs. Bender, and a small staff. All the while, his holdings were appreciating enough to make Gottlieb a millionaire many times over. But even in his later years, he could be seen tooling around the Village in a mid-80’s dark-green station wagon with its back windows busted out. People around the neighborhood said he wore the same clothes day after day. Many wealthy developers buy yachts; Gottlieb sprung for a used police boat. He sometimes set up flea markets outside of his Hudson Street offices, where he hawked odds and ends left behind by departed tenants.

He was territorial, too. Gottlieb’s own residence, at the corner of Bank and Washington streets, has a sign posted in front of it, above his old parking space: “Air will be taken out of tires and license plates removed from unauthorized parkers.”

Gottlieb’s arcane filing system, or lack thereof-he often showed up at important meetings carrying important documents in a plastic bag-became legendary. “He used to come to closings dressed like a janitor and everyone used to pooh-pooh him,” Mr. Elghanayan said. Then Mr. Gottlieb would get into the details of a deal, citing the exact rents each tenant of a building was paying. “He had it all in his head,” Mr. Elghanayan said. “He was amazing.”

“He was a dedicated business person and, to be quite honest, this is what took him out of here,” Ms. Weekes said.

The Nephew Rises

Gottlieb died of complications from a stroke on Oct. 5. But even though he’d been one of New York City’s biggest landowners, The New York Times didn’t run an obituary for 12 days.

If Gottlieb passed quietly, however, the ensuing fight over his estate was raucous. Shortly before his death his brother Arnold showed up from Florida. At first, no will could be found, so the judge appointed him co-executor of the estate with Mollie Bender. Soon, Mrs. Bender was accusing her brother of trying to steal the estate, and, according to court documents, partisans of the two sides engaged in at least one fistfight in the offices of William Gottlieb Real Estate. Then, serendipitously, a 1972 will turned up among his papers. The will left everything to Mrs. Bender and nothing to Arnold Gottlieb. Eventually, Mr. Gottlieb decided not to contest the will and went home to Florida.

The will has already been deemed valid. Once the estate is divvied up, the family will face an inheritance tax of as much as 55 percent. The family may be forced to sell some property to pay the bill. But both friends and adversaries of the Bender family say they think it’s unlikely that Mrs. Bender, who worked loyally beside Bill Gottlieb for so many years, would ever allow the properties to be put on the block.

“One of the things that got his sister crazy was the proposition that people who didn’t understand Bill would get involved and want to bring in developers,” said Stephen Feuerstein, a New Jersey attorney who represented Arnold Gottlieb for a time.

Yet one developer, Mr. Baquero, managing partner at Landmark Development, said he had discussed buying the entire estate from the family. He was scared about buying the portfolio “lock, stock and barrel,” he said, and took a pass when the price tag got up into the $180 million to $200 million range. At the beginning of May, he said, intermediaries for the estate contacted him about building new developments together.

Mrs. Bender’s husband, Irving, initiated the discussions, he said. “He’s the one that actually has been talking about developing it [himself],” Mr. Baquero said. “They want a joint venture with a developer.”

Several people involved with the probate case say that in recent months, Neil Bender, a former insurance salesman, has also been taking a more prominent role in the operation of his uncle’s business.

“He has these visions of grandeur, that he’s going to become this developer, entrepeneur,” Mr. Feuerstein, his onetime legal adversary, said.

The possibility that Mr. Gottlieb’s untouched properties might make way for Upper East Side–style apartment buildings has the Village’s ever-vigilant preservationists terrified and the real estate community champing at the bit.

Indeed, if the aim of the stories leaked to the Post was to drum up interest in the Gottlieb estate, they have succeeded admirably. In the record room of Manhattan’s Surrogate’s Court, his probate file sits out on a desk within arm’s reach of Anne Davis, a clerk there. “I keep it out, since so many people have been asking for it lately,” she said.

As The Observer flipped through the files, a Manhattan attorney, Dean Ross, stopped in. Just checking, he said, who the Benders’ latest lawyer was. He said he represented a client who had offered the Benders $140 million for the estate.

No one is sure exactly how much Gottlieb’s properties are worth. Probate records estimate the properties’ value at between $50 million and $110 million. Some have estimated the properites might be worth as much as $500 million, though cooler heads think the correct figure is somewhere in between.

Anyone who wants to buy the properties will have to deal with the inscrutable Benders, though. They’ve told everyone from reporters to the local community board they’re not selling. Even some developers said they’ve gotten the cold shoulder.

“We heard a lot of rumors, and we tried several attempts to speak to someone about the estate,” said Jules Demchick, who has a contract to buy a property on Morton Street in the West Village on which he intends to build a five-story office building. “What I heard was that at this point in time, they’re trying to evaluate what they have and ascertain what the values are before they do anything.”

In its April 25 report on the bidding for the property, the Post named three developers-Glenn McDermott’s GDM Projects, Alchemy Properties and the Related Companies-as finalists in the bidding for the estate. Kenneth Horn of Alchemy told The Observer he had not spoken with anyone from Gottlieb about purchasing properties for several years.

“We’re not really actively pursuing it at this point,” he said.

Jeff Blau of Related said that the Post story “was news to us as well.” Mr. McDermott did not return repeated phone calls. Mr. Elghanayan, whose company has extensive holdings in the area, said he believed reports of an imminent deal were “just made-up stuff.” “If it were going to go up for bid, my phone would be going off the hook,” he said. He added that he thought the preservationists’ concerns were overblown. Many of the Gottlieb properties are zoned for manufacturing, and any developer who buys the properties looking to develop can expect to battle the community for years to come.

“They much maligned him when he was alive,” Mr. Elghanayan said of the community activists. “Now he’s known as this great preservationist who kept the West Village the way it is.&quot