DUMBO orchid man hides behind his plants

The Brooklyn Paper
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DUMBO artists are certainly an endangered species these days — but now one man is fighting eviction by claiming protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Steve Ludlum, a painter, photographer and amateur botanist, isn’t seeking the federal protection for himself, but for the nearly 1,000 species of imported orchids that he raises in his third-floor hothouse.

He may be onto something: Some of his orchids are classified as “endangered” under international law.

The owner of the former soap factory under the Manhattan Bridge wants to flatten the building to build a 10-story loft-style condo tower.

“Me and my plants aren’t going to take the bullet so a developer can make money,” said Ludlum, standing in the humid, man-made ecosystem he has spent $100,000 building.

“The last landlord didn’t mind. He thought the whole thing was neat.”

Ludlum’s orchids fill a room the size of a studio apartment. Five ceiling fans and a ventilation system regulate the temperature. A hand-rigged irrigation system pipes water to the plants, sending earthy runoff to a drain behind the building.

Last week, the unassuming botanist — a regular on the orchid circuit — filed a lawsuit against his landlord in federal court, charging that his eviction would “result in [the] loss of endangered species” and violate laws protecting his threatened Phragipedium and Paphiopedilum “ladyslipper” orchids.

“Orchid plants are habitat-specific,” he charged in court papers. “Removal from their current location, which is a necessary and required controlled environment, shall constitute a taking of the protected orchid plant.”

Ludlum said the building’s current owner, identified in city documents as Henry Kotowitz, would welcome his quiet enterprise were it not for the fact that a condo conversion would be so lucretive.

Neither Kotowitz nor his lawyer returned phone calls from The Brooklyn Papers.

The case is the first of its kind, but wildlife experts said that Ludlum will face problems proving that his imported flora require protection from the feds.

Federal law protects endangered species from “take” or “harm” — terms that can include eviction — but the law only applies to plants protected under state jurisdiction, meaning Ludlum would have better luck if the orchids were native to New York.

“It’s hard to know what kind of [federal] protections there could be for an international plant,” said Edward Grace, senior special agent for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Neighbors know Ludlum as “the orchid man” and recognize his apartment by the orange glow his high-intensity greenhouse lights send out of the battered old factory.

His quirky connection to he neighborhood goes beyond his crops.

Ludlum was in DUMBO on 9-11, and, as he watched the World Trade Center collapse, took a photograph that ended up on the cover of The New York Times and won him a Pulitzer Prize.

If his endangered species lawsuit doesn’t work, Ludlum has a fallback plan: He’s also planning to sue Kotowitz on the grounds that the plans he’s filed with the Department of Buildings show a development that is larger than the law allows.

Kotowitz’s architect, Robert Scarano, is currently under investigation for allegedly ignoring such zoning rules.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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