Some see gesture of peace, others see P.R. in chef event


By M.L. Liu

Chef Henry Meer, who has come under fire for trying to evict artists living above City Hall restaurant, on Tuesday led 24 kindergarteners through the upscale eatery at 131 Duane St. Above the restaurant, signs reading “Don’t Eat Us Out of House and Home” and “Chef Meer Evicts” were visible in some windows.

The kindergarteners, who are learning about restaurants in their class at P.S. 234 in Tribeca, were taken through the dining rooms, shown the kitchen and given the chance to help Meer mix the ingredients for doughnuts. Meer said he welcomed the children into his restaurant because he wants to reach out to students in local schools and “expand culinary minds.”

While parent Jody Schneeberg agreed the trip was a good way of engaging the kindergarteners in what they are learning, she said some parents were upset about the decision to visit City Hall Restaurant because of Meer’s involvement in a dispute with the loft tenants above his restaurant.

Knowledge of the dispute had prompted parents of students in another P.S. 234 kindergarten class to lobby against a field trip to City Hall Restaurant, according to Elizabeth Hovey, who has a child in that other class. She said she felt Meer was looking for warm and fuzzy pictures to counter the publicity about the dispute.

Meer is a co-owner of Duane Street Realty, which owns the landmark building at 131 Duane. Last year, Duane Street Realty, which includes Martin Gruss and Gruss’ son Joshua, submitted plans to convert the building’s lofts into luxury apartments. The lofts’ tenants have refused to leave, arguing that Duane Street Realty took advantage of a provision in the Loft Law that allows for eviction of rent-stabilized tenants only if a building is going to be demolished.

Whether renovations that will be done on the inside of the lofts constitute demolition has been an issue in the dispute. The restaurant will remain open during the construction.

Last month, the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal approved Duane Street Realty’s application to refuse to renew the loft tenants’ leases.

When asked about the dispute with his tenants, Meer refused to comment, directing all questions to Duane Street Realty spokeswoman Cheri Fein, who was present for the kindergarten tour.

Referring to the loft tenants, Fein said, “They’re fortunate to be able to live in 2,500 square feet [of space] for about $600 a month for as much as 30 years. Many of them have second homes.”

According to Fein, the building’s owners offered the tenants in each of the six lofts in dispute $150,000 to vacate their apartments. She said three of the tenants refused to discuss any offers, and three would not accept any amount below $1 million to $1.5 million for each loft.

“[Meer] really wishes there could be an amicable settlement. The owners remain open to discussion. The tenants have not been open to discussion,” said Fein.

“The owners’ position is supported by the rent stabilization code, case law and D.H.C.R. precedent,” said Kara Rakowski, the lawyer representing Duane Street Realty. “This is not the first application that the D.H.C.R. has granted to permit an owner not to renew a tenant’s lease based on its intent to demolish the building. This is not out of the ordinary.”

Robert Petrucci, the tenants’ attorney, said he has filed an appeal with D.H.C.R. but does not expect a ruling for several months. The dispute could then move to State Supreme Court if either party disagrees with the appeal decision.

“All of us moved in 30 or more years ago,” said artist Donna Dennis, one of the tenants. “We’re among the first people who made it a neighborhood.”

Dennis believes the dispute over her building relates to the larger issue of affordable housing in the city. “We’re big contributors to society. We’re teachers, we’re artists, and it seems wrong that there’s no place for artists and teachers to live in New York,” said Dennis.

“The arts bring in huge amounts of money to New York,” Dennis continued. “But you have to support the artists a little bit too.”

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