In the early morning hours on the last day of January, a small fire started in a Brooklyn, New York, warehouse packed with almost a million cardboard boxes filled with paper documents. The New York City Fire Department arrived at the Williamsburg waterfront record-storage facility, owned by entrepreneur Norm Brodsky, around 4 a.m. Firefighters brought the fire under control and left the scene.
Two hours later, however, the warehouse was engulfed in flames. The seven-alarm blaze drew scores of firefighters, multiple fire trucks, and two fireboats spraying untold millions of gallons of water in a desperate attempt to tame the flames burning through records belonging to clients such as the City of New York and local hospitals.
"We were told it was the biggest fire in New York City since 9/11," Brodsky said in a recent address at the Inc. offices in Manhattan. "It burned for weeks. It was immense. The scope of this fire was unbelievable."
Brodsky, a longtime Inc. contributing editor, lived on and owns the 11-acre parcel of land between North 10th and North 12th streets on the East River. In little time, his apartment on the property and one of CitiStorage's facilities were gone.
Valuable real estate
Brodsky founded CitiStorage in 1990, moving it to Williamsburg from Long Island City, Queens, in 1994. He bought the land a few years later, building state-of-the-art warehouses and an apartment for himself and his business partner and wife, Elaine, to live in. In 2007 he sold CitiStorage for $110 million but held onto the land.
Today, the land is estimated to be worth north of $100 million, thanks to its waterfront location and sweeping views of Manhattan. Adding to its value is the fact that it's one of the last remaining lots the city would need to complete the 28-acre park officials promised the community in 2005.
City fire marshals are still investigating the cause of the blaze. An FDNY spokesman tells Inc. that neither fire appeared to be suspicious.
According to Brodsky, as well as reports and a statement from the company that owns CitiStorage, firefighters turned off the sprinkler system after extinguishing the first fire, waited 45 minutes, and then departed the area. When the second fire broke out, the sprinkler system was not on to contain the flames.
"My life has been turned upside down"
Brodsky has heard about the rumors flying around Brooklyn and beyond. A day after the fire, he says, his wife went shopping for clothes because they had lost everything in the fire. Somehow the CitiStorage fire came up while she was at a store and the clerk commented, "We heard the landlord started the fire to sell the land."
"That hurts. That hurts," Brodsky tells Inc. "Yeah, I started a fire to burn everything we ever owned. We hear those rumors and it's so far from the truth it's ridiculous."
Brodsky and Elaine have left the Brooklyn waterfront for the time being, renting an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "We needed a happy place," he says. Without an office, he says, he'll start taking meetings again when a double-wide trailer arrives at the Brooklyn property.
The fire isn't the only thing Brodsky's mind and fortune needs to recover from. "My life has been turned upside down, which is interesting at my age. This was not the only thing that happened at this time. The price of oil went down dramatically, so my hotels in North Dakota had to cut the nightly sleep rate down by 60 percent, and my third restaurant we opened is losing money," he says. "I've had a bad run of luck for the past couple of months."
As an entrepreneur, Brodsky says, he tries to see the good in everything. He and his wife had been planning to sell the land and move in three years, but the fire may end up speeding the process along. He also said he would not rebuild. "The land is too valuable for a warehouse or office space," he says.
As for the future of the property, Brodsky says he and his wife "would want as much of it to be park as possible. Hopefully [we can make] a deal with the city and do commercial or residential for the rest of it." While local politicians and community members see the fire as a good sign for the development of the park promised 10 years ago, Brodsky sees an opportunity to make good on a lifetime of hard work and smart real estate investment.
"People in the community came up to me and said, 'We'd like you to donate your land.' I laughed and said, 'Listen, here's how I operate: We're very charitable, but I first make the money and then give it away,'" Brodsky says. "I am businessman first and charitable second. They'd like me to give it away first, but it's not going to happen."
Reflecting on the weeks following the fire, Brodsky says he's reminded of when he went broke when we was 33 years old. He needed a new pair of shoes desperately, so he went to a cheap store and bought two pairs for $7 apiece. They fell apart the first time it rained, but they lasted long enough to make the impression he needed to handle some business dealings. "Entrepreneurs' lives aren't always great, even if we're smiling all the time," he says. "But entrepreneurs can survive disasters."
Fortunately, he adds, he and Elaine had many family members and friends who helped support them. Ulitmately, his biggest takeaway from losing his home and most of his family's possessions is this: "If someone asks for a favor, do it. Build up your social network. I have been doing favors forever and now I know everyone in Brooklyn."