Abe Hirschfeld, eccentric developer, is dead at 85
By Albert Amateau
the multimillionaire developer whose monumental chutzpah fueled bizarre business, publishing and political forays and whose extravagant public statements made him sound like a Yiddish comedian, died on Aug. 10 at the age of 85.
Just two years after completing a prison sentence for conspiring in the attempted murder of a former business partner, he mounted a 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, billing himself as Honest Abe.
Born in Poland, he moved to Palestine as a teenager, immigrated with his family to New York in 1950 and began buying commercial real estate in 1958. He made his fortune developing parking garages and owned interests in the Hotel Pennsylvania across from Penn Station and the Crowne Plaza in the Times Square area. He hatched other development schemes, some on the West Side that made a lot of noise but left little else.
Twenty-five years ago, the self-proclaimed originator of open-air parking was a very minor partner with two Argentine developers, Carlos Varsovsky and Francisco Macri, in the proposed redevelopment of the 53-acre former rail yards along the Hudson River between 59th and 72nd Sts.
The principal partners defaulted on their loans and sold out to Donald Trump in 1984, but Hirschfeld retained his minority interest claim on the property until Trump finally bought him out a year later.
In 1987, New York City proposed to acquire the National Maritime Unions complex of buildings on Ninth Ave. between 16th and 17th Sts. and turn it into a work-release residence for prisoners on parole from Rikers Island. At a standing-room-only Community Board 4 meeting full of angry Chelsea residents, Hirschfeld proposed to buy the buildings himself and rent part of the space for worthy community use. He was not specific about other uses and the offer came to naught when Covenant House acquired the 17th St. wing for its Rites of Passage residential and education program for youth, and a center for Chinese students in New York acquired the Ninth Ave. wing, now converted into The Maritime, a luxury hotel.
Then, in the early 1990s, Hirschfeld was one of four developers to responded to a New York State request for proposals from private developers for the Chelsea Piers Piers 59, 60, 61 and proposed a parking facility and a big-box retail outlet. He lost out to the proposal by Roland Betts and Tom Bernstein for the Sports and Entertainment Center, which has been open since 1995.
Last year, ill with cancer and using a wheelchair with the help of an aide, Hirschfeld came to a crowded hearing of the City Planning Commission on the proposal for the Hudson Yards District between 10th and 12th Aves. from 30th to 42nd Sts. including the now-abandoned proposal for a Sports and Convention Center stadium over the rail yards between 30th and 33rd Sts. Hirschfeld told the crowd that he would build the stadium himself on top of a large parking garage without any public money.
The construction workers at the meeting cheered him, but the city ignored the offer and the stadium plan fell through.
He mounted a Democratic Party campaign for lieutenant governor but Governor Mario Cuomo challenged his petition signatures and knocked him off the ballot and unsuccessfully ran for Congress against Jerrold Nadler and against C. Virginia Fields for Manhattan borough president. But he did serve as state Democratic Party treasurer in the 1960s and was elected in 1989 to the Miami Beach City Commission. He made headlines by spitting on a Miami Herald reporter.
His two-week ownership of the New York Post in 1993, when he proposed to install Bill Tatum, publisher of the Amsterdam News, as editor in chief, won him more headlines and a famous edition of the Post with the front page showing its founder, Alexander Hamilton, shedding a tear devoted to mocking him. He subsequently published his own newspaper, Open Air PM New York, which lasted 18 months.
He was indicted on 123 counts of New York State income tax evasion in 1997, but the jury ended in deadlock. He later offered each juror on the tax evasion case $2,500. In 2000, he was convicted of conspiring in the 1996 attempted murder of Stanley Stahl, a former business partner. He served two years.
A son, Elie, a daughter, Rachel, and his wife, Zipora, survive him.