Volume 74, Number 11 | July 14 - 20, 2004

Meat Market on the ropes

A special Village supplement

Market faces expiration date, as exodus of meat-

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson

Mark Hirschorn, president of Premier Veal. The company plans to leave the Meat Market and relocate to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx.

Word travels fast among the meatpackers in the Meat Market. It seems everybody knows everybody else’s business in the small, six-block area. And what everybody seems to know — as if it wasn’t becoming clear enough already a few years ago — is that the meatpackers are not long for the Meat Market.

One need only hang around on the street for a while as the Market is opening up for business to hear the latest news: which companies will be the next to leave, who’s selling their building — and for how much.

In the 1950s, when the Market was at its highpoint, there were 150 meat businesses. Today, there are 25. And the number continues to shrink.

If there was any notion the Meat Market could weather the area’s transformation into a nightlife and restaurant district, the velocity of change in the past year has blown that idea away.

Two large mainstay companies of the Market on W. 14th St., Gachot & Gachot and Eastern Meats, both plan to leave. Gachot & Gachot reportedly has sold its two adjacent buildings to designer Diane Von Furstenberg for $10.5 million. Word has it Gachot & Gachot will stay until the end of the year and are not yet sure where they will relocate their business.

A developer has signed a long-term lease with Eastern Meats for one of its two adjacent buildings — the one the High Line goes into at the end of 14th St. — and the company is negotiating a sale of its other building, expected to be finalized within the next three weeks. Eastern Meats is said to be relocating to Brooklyn.

In addition, Premier Veal plans to vacate the city-owned building it occupies at Gansevoort and West Sts. and relocate to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx.

Word on the street also has it that Quality Veal on 13th St. will be moving out.

“Most of us down here feel we have five years left,” said Tom, who has worked in the Market 25 years, 17 at Gachot & Gachot doing shipping and receiving, as the Market opened for business early last Friday.

Down the block, workers for M & W — one of what will soon be just two meat businesses left on 14th St. — unloaded boxes of hot dogs and chopped beef from a truck. M & W owns its building. The other company, Food Warehouse, has a three or four-year lease.

Carl Hood, a truck driver — or jobber in Meat Market lingo — was waiting around for the Market to open up so he could get meat and drop it off at various stores. He was on vacation, but looking to make a few extra bucks. A long white stretch limo negotiated the turn onto Washington St. Hood, who has been working in the Market since 1970, remembered how the streets used to be jammed with meat trucks and the sidewalks full of activity in the Market’s heyday.

“Couldn’t even walk down here,” he said.

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Eastern Meats has leased the former refrigerated warehouse building at the end of W. 14th St., right, to a developer who plans to put in commercial uses. Running into the building is the High Line, which is to be developed into a park or pedestrian walkway. Eastern Meats plans to sell the adjacent building, to the left, within the next few weeks. The company is leaving the Meat Market and reportedly relocating to Brooklyn.

Gerald Hirsch, president of Eastern Meats, confirmed that he has leased 450-456 W. 14th St., a five-story building into which the old High Line runs, to High Line Development LLC. (The High Line and its easement are still owned by CSX railroad.) In three weeks, he hopes to have sealed a deal to sell his adjacent three-story building to another group, he said.

“It’s done. It’s over,” said Hirsch on the state of the Meat Market, during an interview in his office last Friday. “It’s a fait accompli. I am the last wholesaler on a wholesale block.”

According to Hirsch, whose family has been in the Meat Market since 1934, the Market once employed 3,000 to 5,000 workers, but now employs just 300.

The on-premises rabbi who oversees the kosher meats dropped by to wish Hirsch a “good shabbos,” then took off for the weekend.

“Part of my operation,” Hirsch explained.

A phone call came in that Hirsch had been waiting for. He had to take it.

The principal partner in the group that bought 450-456 W. 14th St. is Charles Blaichman, who told The Villager he plans to develop the property commercially.

“It’s basically going to be another straight commercial building,” he said, adding he is looking for tenants. Blaichman also owns the former warehouse that contains Spice Market and Soho House and the building on 13th St. the contains Bumble & Bumble and APT bar and will develop a five-story office building on the site of the Woolco building on Gansevoort St. (Outside of the Meat Market, he also was a developer of the Richard Meier residential towers at Perry St. and recently purchased a majority ownership interest in the Philip Johnson-designed residential building planned at Spring and Washington Sts.)

Since 1984, Premier Veal has been located in a 1908 Fire Department pumping station on Gansevoort St. that was converted to a cold-storage warehouse in the 1940s. The city had asked Premier to spend $1 million on renovations to the building, for electrical, plumbing, the roof and floor, but refused to let them purchase it, so they are moving to Hunt’s Point, said Mark Hirschorn, the company’s president.

“If I owned the building, I would have been willing to move forward with the building and keep the business here,” he said.

The city also increased the rent.

“It went from $12,000 to $20,000, and then they want an increase of five percent every year. We can’t afford it,” he said.

The company was founded in 1972 by his father, Marvin, who was previously in textiles. Hirschorn said it makes sense to relocate to Hunt’s Point, where the critical mass has shifted, with a meat market now four times the size of the one in the Village.

“We depended on the independent jobbers to stop at three or four of us and make their purchases — veal from us, lamb from Bob Wilkins, boxed beef or pork or chickens from Interstate,” he explained. “Hunt’s Point where we’re moving to has a bigger base of operations.”
Hirschorn said he heard Interstate, a food distributor that needs more space, wants to lease the building and would fix it up, and is in negotiations with the city. However, James Ortenzio, president of Long Island Beef, said he heard the Premier building is being eyed as a possible spot for relocating the Flower Market. Hirschorn said they still hope to sell some veal out of the building, though all the processing — or cutting — will be done in the Bronx.

The distinctive cow murals on the Premier building are by Chico, the Lower East Side graffiti artist. Hirschorn, also an art collector, commissioned him to paint the building in 1996. Noting that some animal activists had shot paintballs at the murals, Hirschorn defended the stall-raising of veal, claiming it was not much worse than raising the animals in a pen, and that chickens are raised in small coops, too.

“Just be happy you’re higher on the food chain,” he said.

Leaning on a horse — a metal pole for pushing palettes — John, a big Czech who owns Atlas meats at the corner of 13th and Washington Sts., said he won’t relocate his business if he has to leave. He said he has a month-to-month lease.

“I have been here 28 years. When I quit here, I quit forever,” he said.

A string of meat companies on the east side of Washington St. south of 13th St. are safe for the foreseeable future, because their landlord, Ortenzio, has renewed their leases.

“He’s offered us longer leases if we wanted,” said Bob Wilkins, owner of Lamb Unlimited, of Ortenzio. “Guy’s phenomenal. He’s a meat man at heart.”

Ortenzio said he’s had offers to buy the building and could be charging higher rent — he figures he’s already lost $3 million by not asking for more rent. But he takes satisfaction in having offered meat businesses new leases when other property owners won’t.

“Only guy in the last eight years and proud of it, ” he said. “It has nothing to do with meat. It could have been printing. It has to do with people working and ambiance.”

Yet, Wilkins is still worried about the impact of a new hotel planned across the street by Andre Balazs that could potentially push them out.

“So far so good, so long as whatever happens across the street doesn’t fatally wound us,” he said. He’s hoping to get a look at the plans for the project.

Some in the Meat Market say that the city-owned co-op building, between Washington, West, Gansevoort and Little W. 12th Sts., is “solid,” that the 10 meat businesses in the co-op will be all that remains of the Meat Market while the rest are forced out by rising rents. The co-op members have 10-year leases running to 2014. However, others suspect the city will try to force out the meat businesses and redevelop the building for another use.

The co-op is on land donated to the city by the Astor family and carries a restriction for wholesale market use for food or agriculture-related business. The members pay a monthly maintenance fee to the co-op and the co-op pays rent to the city.

The vacant Maggio beef building in the co-op could also be a spot for part of the Flower Market. However, a co-op member said the lease conditions for the Maggio space require the tenant to pay for $3 million in renovations.

For those companies not in the co-op or not lucky enough to have a landlord like Ortenzio, however, the future appears far less certain.

North Atlantic Harvest is the only remaining business in a block of graffitied and burned-out buildings on 10th Ave. between 13th and 14th Sts. owned by Bill Gottlieb’s estate.

“We’re working without a lease,” said John Leary, part owner of the seafood company. “Gottlieb’s had people come in and look at the buildings.”

Developer-looking types pass by from time to time. “Every once in a while, you see some suits walking around,” he said, “and they’re taking pictures and jotting down notes.”

Leary expects the company will eventually have to move to East Harlem or Hunt’s Point, where the Fulton Fish Market is also to relocate by January 2005.

Last year, the Gansevoort Meat Market was designated a city historic district. As part of the landmarking effort, Village residents and preservationists have championed the cause of helping the meatpacking businesses stay. However, Eastern Meats’ Hirsch finds it ironic, noting that in the past, “They didn’t want the Meat Market.”

It’s pretty much moot now, though.

“They landmarked it — It doesn’t even smell like a Meat Market anymore,” Hirsch said. “The smell is gone.”

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