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Storied Art Dealer Takes Aim at SoHo Landlords

MANHATTAN (CN) - In a city where landmarks routinely shutter to make room for condominiums, an septuagenarian art dealer who discovered Jean-Michel Basquiat and other giants has another gripe about development run amok.

Now in his twilight years and failing health, Tony Shafrazi says that his landlords are trying to evict him out of the SoHo loft now that has improved with more than $1.2 million in renovations.

Shafrazi has lived at 115 Wooster Street for almost exactly two decades, according to the lawsuit he filed Friday in New York County Supreme Court.

An early advocate of Basquiat's work, Shafrazi memorably paired the artist with Andy Warhol at an exhibition with a poster depicting the two artists as boxers. He is also crediting with helping promote Keith Haring's work, as well as hosting exhibitions of Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon.

Shafrazi's 19-page complaint also describes him as a model tenant who made "state of the art" improvements to the gallery and always kept current on his rent.

The New York County Supreme Court lawsuit against Jordan Wooster Street Associates, Schur Management Co. and its shareholder Larry Schur shows the stark contrast to the grittier SoHo of the 1990s and the plush, cobblestone-paved neighborhood of today.

When Shafrazi first moved into his third-floor loft, "there was no air conditioning or heating system nor a working elevator," his complaint states.

"In fact, the elevator was manually operated and very dangerous," the complaint states. "Subsequently, there was a fatal accident with the elevator, and Shafrazi helped to bring a new updated elevator to the building after this occurrence."

Shafrazi claims he paid for those repairs out of pocket, and even financed a $400,000 redesign by Richard Gluckman. The architect is not a party to the action.

"The substantial expenditures incurred by Shafrazi were in response to his clear intent to live in the loft for a very long time, and his reliance upon the Schurs' representations that he would be able to stay on the premises for as long as he wished - subject only to reasonable and mutually agreed upon rent increases," the complaint states.

As part of the "very cordial relationship" that developed between Shafrazi and the Schur family, the landlord promised two years ago that he would not increase the rent once the lease was renewed, according to the lawsuit.

Shafrazi claims that this abruptly changed on July of this year, when he says Schur's nephew Billy took over the management of the property and announced a plan to divide the property to collect two rents.

Billy Schur is not named as a defendant in the complaint.

Responding that this contradicted his uncle's promise, "Shafrazi also explained that he was going through a very complicated and stressful period of time in his life, as he was already in the midst finding another space to relocate his art gallery, and more importantly, he had to attend to a multitude of health issues that had recently arisen, causing him great distress and impairment," the complaint states.

Unmoved, the landlords sent him a letter on Sept. 12 explaining that his lease would expire at the end of the month, Shafrazi says.

The landlords allegedly announced their intention to commence eviction proceedings in October, and refused to let him negotiate the lease with their lawyers since then.

Shafrazi, an Armenian who was born in Iran, also suspects age and racial bias might have motivated his treatment.

He wants at least $1 million for breach of contract, racial discrimination fraud and other charges, and the terms of his most recent lease extension declared void.

Attorney Robert Hantman filed the complaint for Shafrazi.

Lawyers for the landlords could not immediately be reached after business hours.

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