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Steve Roth, the 80-year-old billionaire real estate mogul, has a dream.
With the blessing of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, he wants to raze much of the area around Penn Station and put up 10 skyscrapers.
But 92-year-old Arnold Gumowitz is ready to spoil the relative whippersnapper’s hopes.
The real-estate mogul owns 421 Seventh Avenue, an office building across from Madison Square Garden that will need to be demolished if Roth’s controversial glass and steel supertalls are to happen.
But Gumowitz doesn’t want to sell the 15-story structure that he bought 43 years ago. It’s where he runs his commercial real estate empire, and where he still comes to work with his son every day.
He also definitely doesn’t want it demolished by eminent domain, a possibility he just found out about recently when he saw plans for the project with a drawing of a roughly 80-story tower in place of his own building.
“I look for fairness but when someone attacks me, I respond,” Gumowitz told The Post. “This is a generational piece of property. This is also a piece of real New York. I also hate to see this area become another impersonal Hudson Yards with nothing but tall buildings and no sunlight.”
Because the state declared the area “blighted” a year ago, Roth’s Vornado Realty and the Empire State Development Corp (ESD) — the state agency directing the project for Cuomo — have the right to tear down certain blocks in the designated area. At least 200 people will lose their homes and 9,000 employees will be out of work if the project goes ahead.
Gumowitz’ building sits at a critical spot for the planned Empire Station project: it’s in an area where the state wants to build a subway entrance and enlarge the sidewalk.
State officials, while cagey about whether they’d take Gumowitz’s building by eminent domain, indicated in a recent community board hearing on the issue that it’s a card they could play if they had to.
But to employ eminent domain, the ESD’s plan would have to undergo another review process, and a public hearing, said an official who did not want to be named.
They could also acquire the building through a negotiated sale.
Good luck with that, said Evan Cooper, who has worked for AAG Management, Gumowitz’s real estate management company, for 23 years.
“Roth and this project are coming at Arnold like a speeding train,” Cooper said. “But what they don’t realize is that Arnold is the immovable object.”
Constructed in 1921, Gumowitz’s building is the kind of affordable address where accountants and therapists can have their own small private offices. His business occupies the two top floors, which include a dance floor where he liked to practice the tango with his late wife, Anne.
It’s across the street from the Hotel Pennsylvania, which Roth owns and plans to tear down. But he still needs the site where Gumowitz’s building sits for the project to go ahead as envisioned.
Like many in the area, Gumowitz didn’t even know the details about the so-called Empire Station Complex plan, which would allow Vornado and other unnamed developers to build the towers, until he read about it in The Post in March. The new structures would, purportedly, generate revenues to pay for the Penn Station makeover that Cuomo supports.
The towers — including five so-called “supertalls” rising up to 1,300 feet, and two over 900 feet — would surround the 34th Street train station in a two-block radius. Opponents say the project is a boondoggle that will give Roth tax breaks for the buildings, and impress his stockholders, but may not do much to improve Penn Station.
Gumowitz, his son, Gary, and Cooper have hired attorneys who specialize in eminent domain threats to investigate. They’re especially upset that publicity about eminent domain is driving away prospective tenants.
A spokesman for Vornado referred calls to ESD.
Gumowitz has met with Roth twice to suss him out. Once, the two had lunch at Roth’s palatial digs at 220 Central Park South, on Billionaire’s Row, where they ate poached salmon in the library, surrounded by Roth’s expensive art collection. “We’re two poor kids from the Bronx,” Gumowitz told The Post, with a laugh.
Then Gumowitz invited Roth to the 421 Seventh Avenue conference room for tuna sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies. Gumowitz said Roth offered an “insulting price” for the building, so “Why should I sell?”
Now a multi-millionaire, Gumowitz comes by his grit the hard way. He grew up with his family in a $20-a-month walkup in the East Bronx and started selling homemade ices from a store he opened with his brother when he was 21. When that Harlem shop failed, he got a job as a busboy at Grossinger’s in the Catskills, worked his way up to assistant manager, and met a waitress, Anne, who would become his wife of 62 years.
In 1958, he studied a book called “How I Turned $1000 Into a Million in Real Estate in My Spare Time” by William Nickerson and, using a nest egg of $10,000, grew a real estate portfolio of more than 40 buildings in New York and beyond.
Gumowitz lost Anne in 2017. His longtime attorney, who, he said, fought many legal battles for him, died last summer. But he still loves coming to work, and has no plans to retire — or move, Cuomo and Roth be damned.
“I love being able to just walk over to the Garden to see the Knicks play,” he said. “I love that I don’t even have to give people an address. I can just say we’re a block from Macy’s. We’ve got a unique home here.
“Let them try to get me out.”
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