King Neil of Greenwich Village
Dana Rubinstein Jan. 19, 2010, 10:15 p.m.
Neil Bender, Greenwich Village’s largest private landlord, caretaker of and disputed heir to the William Gottlieb real estate empire-which includes more than 100 individual properties in what has become one of the most valuable residential neighborhoods in New York City-is a reclusive, 54-year-old Springsteen fan with a thick shock of silver hair that he’s wont to run his fingers through, a limp handshake, a stocky build, an affection for old cars, and a stable of critics that includes his tenants, his late Uncle Billy’s old friends, his sister and nephew and his former osteopath.
“If Billy heard and found out all the things that were going on right now, he’d find it very deplorable,” said Michael Corbett, Mr. Bender’s nephew and Gottlieb’s grandnephew, who is now in an extended legal fight with his uncle to reclaim what he considers partly his inheritance.
Mr. Corbett, a 40-year-old personal trainer who lives in midtown, and his mother, Cheryl Dier, of Maryland, have two aims before the Appellate Division: first, to overturn a surrogate judge’s decision to grant Mr. Bender stewardship of the Gottlieb real estate trust, which expires in 2014; and second, to question the 2005 will of Mollie Bender, Gottlieb’s sister and heiress, who died in 2007, leaving all 100-plus buildings to her husband, Irving, and son Neil (and pointedly cutting out her daughter, Ms. Dier, and grandsons, one of whom is Mr. Corbett). A decision from the court on the first matter is expected any day now. Untangling the various family claims is a headache. But at stake is one of New York City’s largest real estate empires.
We’ve read this story before, of yet another New York real estate fiefdom tearing asunder yet another New York family, albeit with different boldface names: the Astors, the Helmsleys, the Goldmans. In this case, the estate’s worth has been estimated to range between a mere few hundred million dollars to more than $1 billion. And, as Andrew Gerringer, a Prudential Douglas Elliman managing director in Greenwich Village, put it, “Even as New York goes, this is really bizarre.”
WANDER AIMLESSLY through the genteel corridors of the West Village and take note of the more ramshackle buildings. Chances are they belong to Mr. Bender. There’s the chartreuse two-story at the corner of Greenwich and Gansevoort, with a ground floor filled by Italian eatery Nero D’Avola; the two-story industrial building that looks like an old meat processing plant at 52 Gansevoort, which on Sunday bore a rusted metal awning like a stained visor against the beating rain, while its wood-paneled neighbor next door, the Griffin Club, positively bellowed wealth; the lovely and neglected triangular Northern Dispensary, bounded by Waverly Place and Grove and Christopher streets, empty now for more than a decade; the historic Keller Hotel, at Barrow and West streets, built in 1898 to house sailors.
It’s anybody’s guess what designs, if any, Mr. Bender has for the Gottlieb estate. Estranged family members, surely driven by their own self-interest (though they present themselves as more community-minded), describe a landlord who is diminishing the value of his uncle’s hard-won estate. Tenants describe a landlord who is even more unresponsive to their needs than his predecessors. Real estate professionals describe a landlord who doesn’t return phone calls and who conducts business out of his attorneys’ office.
At the end of September, when The Observer first contacted Mr. Bender, he agreed to be interviewed a month and a half hence. He backed out the week of his scheduled interview. That did not come as a surprise: “Virtually everybody I know who has wanted to have interactions with Neil has been unable to,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
“Neil is pretty much an absentee landlord,” said one of his residential tenants, who asked to remain unnamed. “At first he was there all the time. Now you can’t even get into the office at 544 Hudson Street. It’s sealed up like Fort Knox.”
“It’s just impossible to reach him for anything,” said a resident of 103 Greenwich Avenue, the storefront of which used to house Dayo Restaurant and now sits empty. “The building is falling into disrepair.”
Mr. Bender, phantasmagorical though he may be, does exist. Joey Wang, the manager of Baby Buddha restaurant at 753 Washington Street, has seen him. For what it’s worth.
“Bill [Gottlieb], we talked to him and he sent people right away to fix things,” Ms. Wang said. Under Mr. Bender, not so much. First, Mr. Bender declined to renew Ms. Wang’s lease and instead had her pay by the month. Then, he cut off roof access, so that Ms. Wang couldn’t have the chimney cleaned. Now, in the middle of one of the worst real estate downturns in decades, with vacant storefronts proliferating in the Village like rotten teeth, he’s asked Ms. Wang to leave by Jan. 31.
“It’s like they’re trying to turn the neighborhood into a slum,” said Gina Shamus, a Westbeth Artists Housing resident who gathered with a number of other local patrons inside the restaurant on Sunday to protest the eatery’s pending eviction.
“An upscale slum,” said fellow patron Eve Zanni.
“Bill Gottlieb kept the storefronts full,” said Mae Gamble. “He may not have kept them up, but they were full.”
“And he kept rents moderate,” she added.
Indeed, while Gottlieb was often accused of neglecting his buildings during the real estate boom-earning him the moniker the accidental preservationist-many of his former tenants remember him quite fondly (perhaps influenced by what was to follow). Among them is Keith McNally, whose famed restaurant Pastis is housed in a Gottlieb estate building at Nine Ninth Avenue: “Despite Bill Gottlieb being highly idiosyncratic, once he was committed to you, he was, in my opinion, a fantastic landlord.”
MR. BENDER GREW UP in Silver Spring, Md., and attended the University of Maryland, and then law school at Touro College in New York. He moved to a rowhouse belonging to his uncle Billy at 24 Bethune Street.
Mr. Corbett remembers an Uncle Neil, only 14 years his senior, who would sneak video cameras into rock concerts and tape them surreptitiously. He remembers an uncle with whom he was close. “At one time, Neil and I were like brothers, up until about 1990.”
In his appellate brief, Mr. Corbett devotes an entire section to what he calls Mr. Bender’s “habitual drunkenness,” and references two drunk driving convictions and an affidavit from an osteopath named Lionel Bissoon, who treated Mr. Bender for a number of years for non-alcohol-related issues.
“He started going down a different path in the late ’80s, binge drinking heavily, regularly drunk, and I would have to carry him up to his apartment on Bethune Street,” Mr. Corbett later elaborated to The Observer. “I would get calls from my uncle’s restaurant: ‘Mike you’ve got to come over, he’s making a spectacle of himself. You’ve got to do something.'”
Mr. Bender spent time working at commercial real estate finance firm Haves, Pine & Seligman, and for his uncle, albeit sporadically, in Mr. Corbett’s recollection. And he harbored grand real estate aspirations. “He always wanted to be controlling the business. He would tell everyone he was ‘Real Estate Neil,'” or “Real Neil,” the latter a nickname he inscribed on his marathon T-shirt.
But Mr. Bender’s alleged misbehavior, including his failures to pay credit card debt-which once again landed him in court-soured their relationship, in Mr. Corbett’s accounting. Gottlieb kicked Mr. Bender out of the business in the late 1980s, early 1990s, said Mr. Corbett.
In the mid-1990s, Mr. Bender married a woman named Marika. Mr. Corbett held up one of the four corners of the chuppa at the wedding. The couple had a son, and it’s unclear where the family lives now. In various legal documents, Mr. Bender has named as his legal residences 540 Hudson Street and One Morton Square, according to Mr. Corbett’s attorney, Carl Mayer. His former home, at 24 Bethune Street, still stands, a rowhouse with peeling red paint and a forbidding wrought-iron metal cage covering the entrance. No house number is visible.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Bender began to consult with an osteopath for what his nephew described as back pain. In an affidavit filed as part of the case, the osteopath, Dr. Bissoon, who said he was owed money by Mr. Bender, described his former patient’s bizarre behavior: “Many times Mr. Bender would ask if he could stay in the office after his appointments to rest,” reads the affidavit. “He would sleep three to four hours in the office and we’d have to eventually wake him up because we needed the room for other patients. In my professional opinion, Mr. Bender was either under the influence of alcohol or narcotics; he appeared completely out of it and dysfunctional in the middle of the day during each and every visit.”
“Mr. Bender would loudly boast that his uncle, William Gottlieb, hated him and would not let him work in the office of his uncle’s real estate business. He also boasted, once his uncle died, that his mother, Mollie Bender, had inherited everything from her brother William Gottlieb, and that he, Neil Bender, would soon get his mother to leave everything to him. … In other bizarre incidents, Mr. Bender would repeatedly, in a stupor, enter in the men’s room at our clinic and stuff an entire roll of toilet paper in the men’s toilet. We would repeatedly ask him not to do this and he would repeatedly engage in this inappropriate, bizarre behavior.”
For the record, there is at least one acquaintance and onetime Gottlieb tenant willing to speak well of Mr. Bender: Sean Meenan, former co-owner of Rialto, housed in a Gottlieb estate building on Elizabeth Street. “Neil’s always been fair and straight up with me.”
When Billy Gottlieb died in 1999, what was already a bad family situation turned markedly worse.
“He wanted me out of the apartment I lived in all my life,” Mr. Corbett said. “And then little by little, he cut off contact with my family. He changed the locks at 24 Bethune Street. I was buzzed in to visit my grandpa and my grandma.”
Upon Gottlieb’s death, his estate was left to his sister Mollie. Upon her death in 2007, a will was found that left everything to her husband, Irving, and son Neil. It’s a will that Mr. Corbett and Ms. Dier, in their appeal, call into question. Both Benders were also granted management of the estate. (Neil, not Irving, is said to be the estate’s active manager.)
“Mollie had a 1991 will, which left everything in equal parts to Michael, Cheryl, [Cheryl’s other son] Bradley and Neil. Whereas the 2005 supposed will that Neil produced left everything to him and cut everybody else out,” said Mr. Corbett’s attorney, Mr. Mayer.
“The case is really about, from Michael’s perspective, an allegation of undue influence… The claim is that Mollie was controlled and Irving was controlled, such that they were separated from the other members of the family. … That suggests the will was the product of undue influence, and that would make it an invalid will.”
Indeed, Ms. Dier, in her court papers, asserts that Mr. Bender hired guards who barred access to her mother on the day she died, July 1, 2007: “We were told that Mollie Bender was sleeping, she could not be disturbed.”
Court papers further allege that Mr. Bender’s stewardship of the estate has depreciated its value through neglect and the acquisition of debt.
Mr. Bender declined to comment for this article. In papers filed Nov. 9, he contended that the Surrogate Court judge decided appropriately when granting him control of the estate. In the Surrogate Court’s decision, issued in February 2008, the judge argued that because Mr. Corbett wasn’t named in Gottlieb’s will, he had no standing to challenge the granting of administrative rights. Moreover, the judge deemed Mr. Corbett’s and Ms. Dier’s assertions that Mr. Bender was too irresponsible to act as the estate’s administrator “insufficient to require disqualification.”
Further, in documents filed in November, Mr. Bender calls the allegations of drunkeness and financial irresponsibility “little more than a scurrilous attack on the Benders’ conduct and good character.”
WHILE THE APPEALS COURT deliberates, Mr. Bender continues to control Greenwich Village’s most storied, and most ramshackle, empire, his intentions unknown, his ambitions unclear. He assigns everyday maintenance to a handful of trusted jacks-of-all-trades with janitor-size key rings. He’s been spotted touring the Village in the back seat of a chauffeured minivan, intentionally or not evoking the legend of his uncle Billy, who would shamble about in a beat-up station wagon.
In other ways, he’s departed from his uncle’s legacy. Mr. Bender has made minor attempts at development, with plans to transform the old Keller Hotel into luxury condos, and he’s demolished a building at West and West 12th streets. Both projects now appear stalled. And last year, Mr. Bender leased an empty lot at 47 Prince Street to the Union Square Hospitality Group, which plans to erect a Shake Shack.
And in an attempt to perhaps professionalize his property management, Mr. Bender has hired retail brokers from Ripco, Zelnik and Co. and CB Richard Ellis to find tenants for some of his empty storefronts, a responsibility Gottlieb used to take on himself.
“The one difference is, there are these fits and starts,” Mr. Berman said. “With Bill, there weren’t even those for the most part.”