West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 13 | Aug. 29- Sep.04, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Michael Corbett, a great-nephew of Bill Gottlieb, and Corbett’s wife, Diana, on Waverly Pl. in front of the Northern Dispensary — a vacant Gottlieb property — Aug. 23. Corbett says Neil Bender, Gottlieb’s nephew, should not be appointed executor of the Gottlieb real estate holdings.

Will battle rips Gottlieb heirs but healing center holds hope

By Albert Amateau

The real estate holdings of William Gottlieb, who acquired about 150 buildings — mostly in the Village, and never sold or redeveloped before he died in 1999 — is subject of a battle over family wills.

Gottlieb, praised by some as a preservationist by default, and reviled by others for never spending a nickel to spruce up his quirky collection of ramshackle but historic properties, left control of the holdings to his sister, Mollie Bender, who ran the business as her brother’s executor for more than seven years until she died on July 1.

Mollie’s last will and testament names her son, Neil Bender, as her executor and chief beneficiary, but does not include her daughter, Cheryl Dier, who lives in Maryland, or Cheryl’s son, Michael Corbett, a subsidized tenant of Manhattan Plaza on W. 42nd St. Mollie’s husband, Irving, also shares the benefits of her will but he has not been active in the real estate business.

Dier is challenging Mollie Bender’s will in Surrogate’s Court claiming that Neil Bender had “undue influence” on his mother when she drew up her will in November 2005, disinheriting Dier and Corbett from sharing in a real estate kingdom with a value they estimate at between $1 billion and $2 billion.

Corbett has also filed a Surrogate’s Court petition to block Neil Bender’s petition to be named administrator of Gottlieb’s will with control over the holdings.

With his lawyer, Carl Mayer, Corbett held an Aug. 23 news conference in the Village in front of the Northern Dispensary, a triangular brick building erected in 1828 and restricted to use as a medical dispensary to “serve the worthy poor.”

The dispensary, where a bifurcated Waverly Pl. meets Grove St., has been vacant in the nine years since William Gottlieb bought the property from the New York Catholic Archdiocese. Corbett told reporters and passersby that he doesn’t want control of the billion-dollar real estate holdings just for himself and his mother, but would consult with preservation-minded Villagers about the best use of the historic properties. He said he would restore the Northern Dispensary and devote it to an “integrated healing center that would combine Eastern and Western medicine for people who couldn’t otherwise afford it.”

Corbett, who works as a personal trainer, said he has been struggling with Crohn’s disease for several years. His mother works in a Maryland department store for little more than the minimum wage.

“We have no choice but to challenge my uncle Neil Bender, who seeks control over $1 billion in properties without a penny going to my mother and me,” he said.

In the Surrogate’s Court petition, Corbett claims that Neil Bender is ineligible to administer the Gottlieb properties “by reason of substance abuse, dishonesty, improvidence and want of understanding of the duties and requirements of a fiduciary office.”

Corbett’s petition includes two drunk-driving judgments against Bender dated in 1993 and 1994, and Internal Revenue Service liens for taxes and other civil judgments against him by creditors. Corbett also contends that Bender improperly secured $17 million in financing in June of this year, with properties in the Gottlieb estate pledged as collateral.

Neil Bender this week declined to respond to Corbett’s petition out of court. Lin Hua Wu, a public relations consultant for Bender, said last week that Corbett’s and Dier’s claims were “ludicrous” and “categorically untrue.”

Nevertheless, Mayer, Corbett’s lawyer, said at the Aug. 23 news conference, “We’re not here to denigrate Neil Bender. We’ve asked to settle this matter together as a family, but nothing has happened.” Mayer, a public interest lawyer, said his firm does not take cases unless they have potential public benefit. Mayer said he learned about the case in conversations with Corbett, who was his personal fitness trainer.

Corbett also wants state, city and federal agencies to make a survey of the historic and landmarked properties in the Gottlieb holdings — several of which are vacant or partly vacant — with a view to restoring them.

Gottlieb’s historic properties, most in the West Village, especially in the Gansevoort Market Historic District, include the Keller Hotel, built in 1898 at West and Barrow Sts. on the Village waterfront. Three years ago, Mollie and Neil Bender began converting the six-story building to Class A luxury apartments, but the work is going slowly.

Another rare example of activity in the Gottlieb holdings is the waterfront building at 489 West St., also known as 399 W. 12th St., which is now surrounded by a construction bridge. A demolition permit has been issued for the site and some work appears to be going on. But there is no new building application on file yet.

But more characteristic of the Gottlieb holdings is the building at 395 West St. at W. 10th St. where the Flying Fish restaurant on the ground floor closed at least 10 years ago. It has been untouched. One can still see salt and pepper shakers on the tables.

“Bill Gottlieb was the only man I knew who bought used paint,” said Arnold Warwick — whose real estate business also is centered in the Village — commenting on Gottlieb’s refusal to invest in his properties. Gottlieb’s battered old station wagon and his informal way of dressing were part of his legend.

Mary Anne Staniszewski, an associate art professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a Village resident who passed by the Aug. 23 news conference, said the Northern Dispensary is “a treasure for the neighborhood, for the city and for the nation, and to not take care of it is a civic crime.”

But many Village preservation advocates believe that Gottlieb’s real estate policy has helped preserve the Village. Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said Gottlieb’s and Mollie Bender’s impact on preservation has been a mixed bag. He noted that while historic buildings have not been demolished to make way for new, glass high-rises, neighbors would like to see more care taken with the old buildings.

Florent Morellet, owner of Florent, a restaurant on Gansevoort St. in the heart of the rapidly gentrifying wholesale Meat Market and an avid preservationist, said the prospect of a family fight over the wills of Bill Gottlieb and his sister, Mollie Bender, is a good thing, at least in the short term, for preserving the character of the Gansevoort District and Greenwich Village.

“The buildings will be in limbo while the will is unsettled,” he said.

“Bill was the first — maybe the only — big property owner to favor historic district designation [for the Meat Market],” Morellet said. “I was speaking to him two weeks before he died in 1999 — he was looking at some of his property across the street from Florent at the time. He said, ‘You know what we need here? A historic district.’ I couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘I don’t want to change my buildings, I like them the way they are.’ But he died two weeks later and we had to wait four years to get the Gansevoort Market Historic District.”

Florent insists he’s not against change, but he said Gottlieb’s real estate policy was a welcome brake on development.

“We need to channel development,” he said.

Nevertheless, Florent noted that while Mollie Bender carried on Gottlieb’s policy, there is as yet no telling what Neil Bender — or even Michael Corbett and Cheryl Dier — would do in the future.

Estate taxes are an important consideration. Mollie Bender elected to pay the death taxes on Gottlieb’s estate over 15 years, which will end in 2014. There will also be considerable taxes again on Mollie’s estate. To pay those taxes, Gottlieb properties might have to be sold to conventional developers who don’t collect buildings like some people collect stamps or paintings as Gottlieb did, Florent observed.

“Limbo will be a good place for Gottlieb’s estate for a while,” Florent said.

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