“The building is—what’s the word I’m looking for? Infectious. I refer to it sometimes as Gilligan’s Island. Remember that show? Gilligan’s Island?” Jon Herbitter asked this Monday from the offices of Mann Realty, where he’s president. “You don’t get out.”
In 2007, his boss, Maurice Mann, then a midsize New York landlord, partnered with the billionaire Lev Leviev’s company to buy the Apthorp, that monolithic 101-year-old limestone rental building at Broadway and 79th Street. Last month, Mr. Leviev’s group filed suit, accusing Mr. Mann of wildly, absurdly incompetent mismanagement, if not willful wrongdoing.
“Bullshit. It’s bullshit, it’s bullshit,” Mr. Herbitter said.
Mr. Leviev is an Uzbek-born diamond billionaire, one of the world’s great benefactors of the orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and a dear friend of Putin. Among other things, his suit accused Mr. Mann of allowing both an illegal immigrant to live in a penthouse and an affiliate to live in two ninth-floor units (while calling them vacant on rent rolls). “I’m not even going to justify that bullshit. It’s bullshit. It is total bullshit, all right? Excuse me,” Mr. Herbitter said. “It’s bullshit.”
Mr. Herbitter takes the management of the building very personally. His voice gets misty when he is asked about the best part of his job. “Sitting in that courtyard; taking a deep breath. The building is such a phenomenal …” He had to pause. “I’m describing something that becomes very emotional.”
The Mann era at the Apthorp started as a story about go-go New York real estate, but the old nerve-frayed clash between the building’s new landlord and its tenants (about half rent-regulated) seems quaint in retrospect. Now it’s a story about Manhattan’s downfall, where googly-eyed ambition—the total asking price for all proposed Apthorp units was announced at $1.06 billion, beating 15 Central Park West’s initial cost per square foot—has devolved into panic and hatred.
What was once a rental farce became a joke about a rabbi, red ants, a gun-carrying real estate manager, a diamond billionaire, and a jeans magnate who walked into a monumental Upper West Side rental building, tried to make it into a gold-plated condo, and may be walking out in foreclosure on Jan. 15, the date one lender has reportedly given as a deadline for avoiding default.
MR. MANN was first reported to be buying the Apthorp in November 2006, when he agreed to pay about $425 million—or $2.6 million per unit, well above the previous high for a U.S. apartment building. “It was a little surprising,” a source said. “I didn’t expect him to be at the winner’s circle.” Mr. Mann planned to keep the Apthorp “a very high-end rental and to keep it exactly the way it is,” he told The Times then.
One day after the deal closed in March, a Wall Street Journal article, which quoted Rotem Rosen, the chief executive of American operations for Mr. Leviev’s Africa Israel and the husband of billionaire Tamir Sapir’s daughter, said the building would go condo.
“That was misinformation,” Mr. Herbitter told another newspaper six days later. “We’re long-term investors and we plan to improve the property while maintaining it as a rental, despite press to the contrary.” Before the end of the month, a news release from Africa Israel reiterated that the apartments would be converted and sold off.