Norman Buchbinder, 84, a leader in two local BID’s


By Lincoln Anderson

Norman Buchbinder, a principal in Buchbinder & Warren real estate management and brokerage company, died Jan. 20 at his Upper West Side home at age 84. He had been in failing health.

Buchbinder was a co-founder of the Union Square Partnership, the city’s first business improvement district, covering Union Square and 14th St. between Sixth and First Aves. He was also the founder of the Village Alliance business improvement district, which covers Eighth St. and the central Village area, as well as Astor Pl. and St. Mark’s Pl. to Second Ave.

Norman Buchbinder was born on E. Seventh St. on what was then known as the Lower East Side and grew up in the neighborhood. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School and New York University, where he was on the football team back when N.Y.U. still had one.

A funeral service on Jan. 22 at Riverside Memorial Chapel at 76th St. and Amsterdam Ave. was attended by several hundred friends, family and business associates. Speakers included Rob Walsh, a former executive director of the 14th St.-Union Square Business Improvement District (the Partnership’s earlier name) and current commissioner of the city’s Department of Small Business Services; Gene Warren, Buchbinder’s longtime business partner; and Buchbinder’s daughter Lori. Bill Castro, Parks Department Manhattan borough commissioner, also attended the service.

In his eulogy, Walsh, who became the BID’s executive director in 1989, paid tribute to Buchbinder as “a giant” in the renaissance of Union Square, which in the 1980s was still rebounding after having fallen on hard times in the previous two decades.

“It was 1989. And Union Square was still a struggling neighborhood,” Walsh recalled. “Thank goodness it had civic-minded, committed and caring people like Norman Buchbinder there to lead the way…. After the organization was formed, he didn’t walk away — that simply wasn’t his nature,” Walsh said. “He stayed very active on the board…. He served as treasurer of the organization. He not only kept a watchful eye over the books, he looked over the neighborhood. On a fairly regular basis, I would get a call from Norman about conditions on the street that needed improvement. In the summer months, I would see him walking around the square — in his trademark khaki shorts. Other times he would call to give a heads up about a building that was sold or a new shop coming to the square.”

Leading restaurateur Danny Meyer and attorney Eric Seiler, the Partnership’s co-chairpersons, and Jim Gabbe, its president, issued a joint statement:

“Norman was one of the key drivers behind the renaissance of Union Square, and his belief in our organization and its ability to do good work for the community was boundless and served as a constant source of inspiration. Norman was also a consummate gentleman and compassionate friend. Over the years, he mentored many in our organization and he touched all of us with his good humor, caring, generosity and thoughtfulness.”

In 1993, Buchbinder led the creation of a BID for Eighth St., the Village Alliance, and initially served as its president. The Village Alliance went on to fund a major Eighth St. capital improvement project in 2001 to widen the sidewalks and add historic lampposts.

“Norman had a deep commitment to New York City and Eighth St., in particular,” said Honi Klein, the Village Alliance’s executive director, who was picked for the job by Buchbinder.

Buchbinder’s father was in the millinery business, but, after his father died, his son wasn’t particularly interested in continuing the family hat trade. Instead, he developed a growing interest in real estate.

In the 1950s, when Chelsea was considered a rough neighborhood, Buchinder bought his first building there, on 22nd St., according to Rosemary Paparo, Buchbinder & Warren’s director of management. Buchbinder did a gut renovation of the building, then sold it in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

In 1958, Buchbinder and Warren met at a party and soon after decided to become partners.

“Their partnership for all those years was based on a handshake. They had immense respect, trust and love,” said Paparo, who worked with Buchbinder for 30 years.

In the 1960s, Buchbinder & Warren bought 1 Union Square W., on the corner of 14th St., which today has a trendy Diesel clothing store on the ground floor. Back then, however, Union Square was not where people were investing their money.

“They were taking a chance buying in New York City when many were leaving [the city],” Paparo said. “It was the work of decades to bring the neighborhood back.”

Following years saw the area continue to flounder as S. Klein’s and May’s, two department stores on the square, closed in 1975 and 1988, respectively.

The nine-story 1 Union Square W. today continues to be Buchbinder & Warren’s flagship property and is also its logo. When it was built in the late 19th century, originally as the Lincoln Hotel, it was considered the city’s first skyscraper.

On Eighth St., which recently has seen an unusually high number of store vacancies between Fifth and Sixth Aves., Buchbinder — as he explained in a Villager article last May — decided to lower his asking rents for his commercial properties in order to attract retail tenants. New tenants Buchbinder had coming into his commercial spaces at that time included a liquor store, a wine store, a wine bar, a Japanese cupcake shop and a Belgian waffle place. And he also retained a futon store by lowering its rent. Buchbinder, like some others, felt landlords had been setting commercial rents too high on Eighth St., leading to empty storefronts.

“We feel you have to work with these people [the merchants] to help build back Eighth St.,” Buchbinder said at the time. “So we lowered our rent considerably. We’re trying not to rent to the jewelry stores, and definitely not the shoe stores.”

Buchbinder was active in the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce and was honored as its Member of the Year in 2004.

“He was the epitome of a businessman who took pride in his community and gave back to his community,” said Michael Haberman, the Chamber’s former chairperson. “And from my personal experience, he was just warm and fun to be around.”

Jim Hart, the Chamber’s current chairperson, said of Buchbinder, “He was sharp and witty and with it, and did such a lot of great work for the Chamber — just a great figure in the neighborhood.”

Buchbinder — along with another partner, Zohar Ben Dov — also owned the well-known Riviera Cafe and Sports Bar, at the prime location of Seventh Ave. S. and W. Fourth St. in the heart of the Village.

Another signature property he owned known as “The Cottage,” fronting into the backyard garden at 50 W. Eighth St., was once the residence of rock-and-roll legend Jimi Hendrix.

Buchbinder managed a total of about 65 buildings and owned numerous others. He owned several buildings in Chelsea and his renovating them and raising rents led to protests in the 1980s by local housing activists, notable among them the late Jane Wood. But Paparo said that Buchbinder put in many improvements — like new heating systems, intercoms and roofs — in return for which he was allowed to legally raise the rents. He eventually converted many of his buildings to co-ops and condos.

“Jane [Wood] was adamant that things could never change,” Paparo said, adding, “You’d have to see the buildings now.”

Buchbinder & Warren today has about 50 employees. His daughter Susan, the company’s general manager, will continue to run the company with Warren.

He is survived by his wife, Mae, daughters Susan and Lori, sons-in-law, Bill Abramson and Raymond McDaniel, and their families. He was buried in Farmingdale, Long Island.