Council Member Rosie Mendez at a rally over the former community center (Photo by John Blasco)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Community residents joined City Councilmember Rosie Mendez at City Hall last Tuesday on Three Kings Day to deliver an online petition and over a thousand holiday cards to Mayor Bill de Blasio, asking him to help return the former PS 64 building for community use. The cards and petition were delivered along with gold-wrapped chocolate coins, frankincense and myrrh, in honor of the holiday.
Local politicians and community advocates have been fighting to get the former public school back from real estate developer Gregg Singer, who bought the building from the city for $3.15 million when then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani auctioned it off in 1998. Three years later in 2001, Singer evicted the building’s tenant, local community center CHARAS/El Bohio, which had been using the landmarked building since the 1970s. The building, located at 605 East 9th Street, has been vacant for the last 13 years.
CHARAS was founded in the 1960s by a group of Puerto Rican men (who used their initials to create the name for the organization) in response to the crisis in the Lower East Side at the time, where an increasing number of residential buildings were in tax foreclosure and residents were fleeing the neighborhood.
Local advocates have had marginal success in fighting Singer’s plans, including saving the building from demolition in 2008, as the Post recently noted. A Post story at the time said Singer had been trying to argue that the building shouldn’t have been considered a landmark, primarily because he had stripped the facade of most of its architectural details, but a Manhattan Supreme Court justice ruled against him, upholding the building’s landmark status and thwarting his plan to build a 19-story dorm.
Singer has yet to give up on his plans for a dorm, however, going so far as to sign leases with both the Joffrey Ballet Center Concert Group Program (CGP) and Cooper Union in early 2013. Singer has steadily continued the work for the dormitory but the plan was put on hold again last September when the Department of Buildings issued a Stop Work Order to halt construction.
Three restaurants that are located at the corner of East 21st Street and First Avenue, Ess-A-Bagel, Grill 21 and Rose Restaurant, won’t be getting their leases renewed, T&V has learned.
Henry Beck, a Stuyvesant Town resident who owns Grill 21 with wife Marissa, said their business will likely close at the end of the month. He’s not sure if they’ll move it elsewhere. According to Beck, both his business and Ess-A-Bagel have been denied lease renewals and new businesses are already lined up to move in.
Those businesses are Bank of America and Tal Bagels.
David Wilpon, the owner of Ess-A-Bagel said the longtime bagel joint may be moving somewhere close by but it’s nowhere near a done deal. “There’s a lot that’s up in the air,” he said, adding that he’s still holding out some hope of staying put. He’s also requesting a holdover and is in the midst of negotiations. Meanwhile, the company also has a second location on Third Avenue in midtown.
Wilpon said the trouble with his lease started when his aunt, Florence Wilpon, who’d founded the businesses in 1976, died. This was in September, 2013 during the midst of negotiations for a renewal. After that, while the family was dealing with the will and related issues, “They claimed we weren’t getting back to them in a timely fashion.”
He said he heard that both the bank and the bagel restaurant will be moving into the Ess-A-Bagel space, which is technically two spaces that were divided prior to his restaurant’s opening.
Wilpon chalked up the impending closure as part of the pattern of the city’s landlords preferring to oust mom-and-pops in the hopes of getting a corporation that can pay more.
“It’s endemic of the city; they’re pushing out independent businesses,” he said.
Beck said the owner of the building is L&M Development Partners, and that the owner has already taken away Grill 21’s storage space. Grill 21, a Filipino restaurant, opened in 2005.
A principal at L&M, Ron Moelis, didn’t return a request for comment on the owner’s plans for the property or at least the storefronts. The company develops properties, including affordable housing, and also handles commercial leasing.
(UPDATE: See response from a rep for the owner, an LLC called East 21 Retail, below the article.)
Another restaurant that will be closing is Rose Restaurant, which an employee said will be happening “as soon as possible. The landlord wanted too much money.”
The owners may reopen a restaurant in the Bronx “but not yet and not Manhattan,” he said.
Ess-A-Bagel and Grill 21 expect to have their last days at the end of the month.
A shoe repair shop in the same property is also expected to be given the boot soon.
The owner of Frank’s Shoe Repair said he was unsure of what was happening with his business, as he’s been hearing different stories from neighbors and customers. However, before hanging up his phone, he added that he didn’t see the point of discussing it, anyway.
“It’s nothing to do with you,” he said. “You can’t help us. It’s called business. The big fish eats the small fish.”
Meanwhile, another nearby restaurant/bakery owned by the Becks on East 21st Street and Second Avenue, Pan de Sal, has also closed. The closure of the eatery happened about a month ago due to business being terrible, Beck said. The fact that the storefront was partially obscured by scaffolding since it opened in 2011 “didn’t help.
“The owner told me it was coming down in July; he didn’t say which year. It was a beautiful thing and we had a lot of fun times there,” added Beck, who’s also an associate broker with the Corcoran Group, “but of course you have to make a decision.”
UPDATE: On Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for the owner contacted us and said L&M is not the owner of the building; East 21 Retail LLC is.
When informed of this, T&V spoke with Beck and Wilpon who said they’d believed they were dealing with L&M and affiliated partners.
Beck said, “The people we talk to are still the same. Christina Warner (of L&M) is a part owner. My feeling is they’re still part owners.”
When called for comment, Warner said due to company policy any comment would have to come from East 21’s spokesperson who contacted us.
Wilpon told T&V, “I always thought they (L&M) were (the owner) and we paid to their partnerships.”
We then asked the East 21 Retail LLC spokesperson who owned the LLC, and she admitted that there was some overlap between the two entities, with Ron Moelis, CEO at L&M, being a part owner.
As far as Ess-A-Bagel’s moving out is concerned, the owner issued the following statement:
“When we purchased the property, our main priority was to keep Ess-A-Bagel as a tenant. Ess-A-Bagel is a tradition in this city and we had no desire to see them leave. In the three years since, we’ve bent over backwards to come to a mutually fair agreement with Ess-A-Bagel’s owners. Our offer would have allowed Ess-A-Bagel to remain — and even gave them the option to expand — in the space they are in currently. Unfortunately, it takes two sides to make a deal, and Ess-A-Bagel’s owners repeatedly refused to meet us between their below-market rent and current market value. We regret that Ess-A-Bagel chose to misrepresent our intentions in the press. We take our responsibility as landlords very seriously and worked diligently to keep Ess-A-Bagel as a tenant. At a meeting in September, Ess-A-Bagel confirmed they were actively negotiating a lease at a new location. We wish them the best of luck in all their future endeavors.”
Regarding the neighboring restaurants, the spokesperson said Grill 21 was on a month-to-month lease and made a decision to close, while Rose Restaurant was seven months behind in rent.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Tal Bagels as Tower.