When Henry Meer opened City Hall restaurant in 1998, the menu was inspired by the city’s grand old oyster bars and steakhouses. And the location, 131 Duane Street, was redolent with history: Its fluted, cast-iron columns were forged by hand in 1863, and the former coal room under the sidewalk was perfect for a private dining room. The restaurant’s walls are lined with black-and-white photographs of pushcarts and immigrants, some from the WPA, which provided work for struggling artists in the thirties. “I wanted an environment that breathed New York,” says Meer. But his preservation impulses don’t seem to extend to his current artist tenants—most of whom are sixtysomething Tribeca pioneers who live above the restaurant. He and his partners in Duane Street Realty want to evict them to create condo lofts, or possibly a hotel, using what the rent-regulated tenants, and even Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, describe as a dodgy new tactic: the sort-of demolition.
Last spring, the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal approved Duane Street Realty’s plans based on the provision that allows landlords to kick out tenants if they’re going to demolish the building. But 131 is landmarked, so they won’t destroy the exterior, and the restaurant isn’t closing. “They’re using this to demolish the tenants,” says housing advocate Bill Hall.
This summer, Community Board 1 urged the housing commissioner to reverse her decision and recognize that the “dangerous precedent . . . threatens all residential tenants in rent-stabilized buildings.” The demolition provision was originally intended to encourage landlords to replace dilapidated buildings; even pro-business Doctoroff wrote her to say “I believe [131 Duane] should not qualify.”
A Duane Street Realty spokesperson says tenants haven’t been open to negotiation. “We just want to keep our homes,” counters sculptor Donna Dennis, 62, who moved to Duane Street in 1973 when it was lined with abandoned shoe warehouses. “I have limited resources and I don’t have a nest egg.”
Kara Rakowski, the owners’ attorney, doesn’t consider the case dangerously “precedent-setting.” Yet in her firm’s newsletters, she’s touted the demolition strategy under such headlines as LET'S GET READY TO RUMBLE! The tenants’ attorney has appealed the commissioner’s decision, and most predict the case will eventually go to State Supreme Court.
Last year, Meer said, “The sad reality is that this building needs to be upgraded.” Today, he won’t discuss it, other than to insist, “There is no connection between the restaurant and the building upstairs.” Except himself.