On October 5, the man who owned more acreage in Manhattan than Lew Rudin or Sam LeFrak, had a nine-figure fortune, and was the central figure in the gentrification of the meatpacking district died from an aneurysm at age 64. But aside from a few small paid notices, he didn’t even get an obituary in the New York Times.
Bill Gottlieb’s death was about as low-key as his life: While Donald Trump famously travels in his private 727 jet, Gottlieb drove around town in an old station wagon with blown-out windows. He lived alone in a modest West Village apartment and wore his one suit only on rare visits uptown. But the unassuming landlord had between 165 and 200 buildings in his portfolio – including some of the most desirable real estate in town.
“His death will probably put a hold on the development of the meatpacking district,” predicts Mark Strausman, whose restaurant Chinghalle opens on Gansevoort Street early next year. Though Gottlieb brought many such high-profile tenants to the neighborhood, negotiations were an ordeal. “I had to have coffee with Bill every week for a year before he would even discuss giving me a lease,” says Keith McNally, whose restaurant Pastis is due on Little West 12th Street in November but whose plans to open a revival-house cinema in the same building in partnership with Gottlieb are now stalled. At a recent meeting with Gray Kunz, formerly of Lespinasse, about a space on Gansevoort Street, Gottlieb was put off when the four-star chef arrived with his lawyer and designer, and wouldn’t proceed until he came back without his entourage.
“He hated any kind of pretense,” explains McNally. “He was the worst-dressed man I’d ever met, but I think he dressed that way to disarm people.” “I met with him once,” recalls Landmarks commissioner Jennifer Raab, “and he came in with very important documents that he was carrying around in a plastic D’Agostino bag.” “Bill didn’t have much use for money,” agrees Earle Kazis, who met him in the fifties, when both were brokers at Helmsley-Spear. That’s when Gottlieb began buying downtown property – which he almost never sold.
“Whenever people heard he was my landlord, they would say, ‘Oh, that must be a nightmare,’ because he was eccentric and tough to make a deal with,” says Sam Martinez, who rented space from Gottlieb for the restaurants Rialto, in NoLIta, and Habana, in the West Village. “But he was so concerned about our succeeding. He would say, ‘Do you really need banquettes? What’s wrong with tables and chairs?’ “
Gottlieb’s death, which comes in the midst of the meatpacking district’s commercial boom, leaves its future uncertain. “Maybe it was his desire to never sell anything that maintained the district’s character. Now who knows what will happen?” says Mark McDonald, a tenant and owner of the Gansevoort Gallery.
“He definitely had a vision of what the district should be and was so happy to see how Keith was transforming that old building,” says Martinez. “It’s just a shame after all those years of investing in it that he won’t be here to see the real change.”