Board says we shouldn’t fight City Hall cafe

By Julie Shapiro

Volume 21, Number 39 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | February 6 – 12, 2009

Board says we shouldn’t fight City Hall cafe

Community Board 1’s full board meeting exploded last week into a debate over when the board should advocate for tenants.

The context was a sidewalk cafe application that had no complaints, something the board would ordinarily approve without blinking. But this application was for City Hall Restaurant at 131 Duane St., where rent-stabilized tenants who live above the restaurant are battling a landlord who wants to evict them. Duane Street Realty, the group that owns the building, wants to replace the artist lofts with a luxury hotel, a tenant and her lawyer said after the meeting.

Allan Tannenbaum, a C.B. 1 member, urged the board to reject City Hall Restaurant’s sidewalk cafe application in light of the tenants’ struggles. The board’s opinion is advisory and the city Dept. of Consumer Affairs makes the final decision.

“We need to express our support for the people living in the building whose lives are being destroyed by this restaurant,” Tannenbaum said.

Other board members, though, questioned whether it was appropriate to try to punish Henry Meer, the owner of City Hall Restaurant, for the actions of Duane Street Realty, where Meer is a partner.

“They’re two different issues,” said Albert Capsouto, a board member and restaurant owner. Capsouto said Meer is a good neighbor whose restaurant has become a local hangout often filled with strollers. Meer sent a letter to the board describing his contributions to the community, including feeding homeless people and raising money for local schools.

John Fratta, a board member who is also district manager for a Bronx community board, said it would be “way off base” to let the tenants’ struggle influence the board’s opinion on the sidewalk cafe, which no one opposed in and of itself.

“We’re only supposed to deal with the issue of the sidewalk cafe,” Fratta said. “We’re tainting our process.”

The board ultimately agreed with Capsouto and Fratta, overturning the Tribeca Committee’s opinion and voting in favor of granting the license 22 to five, with four abstentions.

Donna Dennis, an artist who has lived at 131-135 Duane St. for 35 years, said she did not mind the board’s vote. She appreciated the board’s decision to vote against the license two years ago (though the city granted it anyway), because the board’s position brought attention to the tenants’ struggle. Now, though, Dennis and her neighbors are waiting for the state to decide the case and do not wish the restaurant any ill, Dennis said.

The Duane St. building has eight lofts, live-work spaces that artists fixed up in the 1970s. Meer, who co-owns the building with financier Martin Gruss, started trying to evict the rent-stabilized tenants nearly eight years ago, Dennis said. They used a provision that allows building owners to remove tenants if they plan to demolish the building, but Meer and his partners never had such plans, said Robert Petrucci, the tenants’ lawyer. Petrucci said 54 percent of the building would stay intact during the renovations to convert it into a luxury hotel, and the restaurant would stay open throughout construction. Tenant advocates say that amounts to a “phony demolition.”

Under former Gov. George Pataki, the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal gave the eviction and renovation the go-ahead, but a chain of legal decisions over the past several years sent the decision back to the D.H.C.R., now Democratically-controlled, for reconsideration last fall. Both sides are awaiting the D.H.C.R.’s verdict. D.H.C.R. did not return a call for comment.

Meer told Downtown Express he was happy the community board approved his sidewalk cafe application, but he declined to comment on the tenants and the litigation. He said the owners were not planning a hotel and said, “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” but he would not elaborate. Gruss did not return a call for comment.

From a third-floor window above Meer’s restaurant, a sign proclaims, “CHEF MEER EVICTS ARTISTS TEACHERS 30-YEAR TENANTS.” The sign is in Dennis’ apartment, a space she moved into when she was priced out of Soho 35 years ago. She now pays less than $1,000 a month.

“We’re artists and we need these spaces for our work,” said Dennis, 66, who designed the P.S. 234 fence and the ceramic medallions in the school’s walls. “It would be really disturbing if we were to lose. It would threaten any other tenant in a rent-stabilized building. It would make the city much less accessible to middle-class people, artists, teachers. It’s much bigger than us.”

A decision from D.H.C.R. could come in anywhere from a month to a year, Petrucci said.