Volume 16 • Issue 29 | December 16 - 22, 2003

Bottom Line nears the end of the line

By Lincoln Anderson

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

John Hiatt played a benefit show at the Bottom Line Dec. 5 to try and prevent the club’s pending eviction by N.Y.U.

They were three onstage. Each with a guitar. There was John Hiatt, a grizzled veteran singer and songwriter; Suzanne Vega, one of the biggest stars to emerge from the 1980s fast-folk movement; and Dar Williams, a relatively newer star in the folk firmament. They took turns singing their songs, telling stories and anecdotes, bantering with each other, joking with the audience and creating that special atmosphere as only folk music can do. It was a night of folk music in the best tradition.

Braving freezing weather, a capacity crowd of 400 turned out for a Friday night benefit concert for the Bottom Line at W. Fourth and Mercer Sts. They were a mix of young and old and they applauded and rocked and swayed; they pounded on tables and sang along to lyrics they knew and called out names of favorite songs they wanted to hear.

Vega, in her breathy, smoky voice sang her signature hit, “Luka,” about child abuse. Hiatt sang his “Seven Little Indians,” about his father dressing up in his Eskimo mukluks and dancing in front of his children in front of the TV’s “blue firelight.” They spun story after story with their lyrics and guitars.

Yet, beneath the warm feelings flowed a current of uncertainty. The benefit was part of a last-ditch effort by the famous Greenwich Village music club to remain in its home of three decades; two days earlier a Civil Court judge had ruled in favor of landlord New York University’s effort to collect back rent totaling more than $185,000 plus interest accrued over several years and to evict the legendary club.

Talking between songs at one point, Williams noted she’s been part of many “losing battles” that seemed hopeless, only to end up winning.

“What happens on this stage is all about music, and the personalities, the blossoming of musicians. It’s something N.Y.U. misses,” she said, as the crowd applauded her words with vehemence. “It’s not a landmark because it’s living and breathing,” she said of the Bottom Line. “It’s somewhere between a landmark and a legend. It’s a breathing thing called Greenwich Village. You don’t get it everywhere. And if you lose it — you don’t get it again.”

Hiatt picked a fitting song to dedicate to Alan Pepper, the club’s co-founder and co-owner.

“This one’s for Allan Pep-pah,” said Hiatt in his Midwestern drawl, before launching into a soulful rendition of “Have a Little Faith in Me.”

Pepper needs faith and then some. The eviction notice could be posted any day now. Seventy-two hours after the notice’s posting, a marshal can seize the club’s assets for N.Y.U. to either keep or sell.

Last week, N.Y.U. announced in a press release that the club had not paid back the rent within the five-day grace period and will now be evicted. Josh Taylor, an N.Y.U. spokesperson, said the club could be evicted within one to three weeks, though the holidays might affect the timing.

According to N.Y.U. spokesperson John Beckman, the club had offered last week to pay 10 percent of the $1.5 million in renovation costs that the university had required, and another 10 percent this week, with negotiations to follow on payment of the rest, terms the university found unsatisfactory; Councilmember Alan Gerson had tried to work as a mediator to get the university to accept the club’s 11th-hour offer.

Before the crowd left Dec. 5, Meg Griffin, the deejay who broadcasts performances from the club on Sirius Satellite Radio and who organized the show, reminded them to e-mail the four elected officials whose addresses were being handed out at the door — Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Mayor Mike Bloomberg — about helping save the Bottom Line.

In September, Sirius had stepped in to pay the club’s full back rent, on condition N.Y.U. grant the club a 10-year lease. However, there were other terms in the lease N.Y.U. subsequently offered that the club owner said was impossible to meet, including raising the $1.5 million for interior and exterior renovations and a significantly higher rent.

Two weeks ago, the Indigo Girls played two benefit sets. Two nights later, Christine Lavin performed to help the club, but because of the blizzard refunds had to be made. Not counting money from the benefits, with contributions from AT&T, Bruce Springsteen and others, the Bottom Line has raised more than $450,000 towards renovations, or one-third of what N.Y.U. is demanding.

The Bottom Line never signed or returned the lease N.Y.U. sent the club in early October, feeling the rent and renovation costs were too high; however, N.Y.U. said the terms were what Mark Alonso, the Bottom Line’s lawyer, agreed to during negotiations outside the courtroom in September, though Alonso denies this.

On Nov. 21, Alonso sent N.Y.U. a counter lease proposal with terms the club felt were more reasonable and sought to have a conference with university representatives in chambers with the judge on the case, Donna Recant. But N.Y.U. refused to accept the Bottom Line’s counteroffer or meet in chambers with the judge.

In a Dec. 3 statement, following the judge’s decision, Beckman said N.Y.U. was “saddened” by the situation, and that “N.Y.U. does not want to see the Bottom Line close, but it is simply not right to have a not-for-profit educational institution subsidizing a for-profit entertainment business.” Beckman said the Bottom Line’s counteroffer would “still have them paying [a rent] less than half of fair market value.”

Alonso and Pepper wouldn’t reveal their counteroffer.

The Bottom Line’s strategy in court had been to argue that they didn’t have a valid lease with N.Y.U. since a lease renewal from the university a few years ago wasn’t signed by the club. But in her decision, Judge Recant ruled that since the club never challenged the lease before and some months paid the full $11,000 rent, there was a tacit acceptance of the lease.

Despite the judge’s ruling to issue an eviction warrant, N.Y.U. had said it would still allow the club to stay, if it signed the lease N.Y.U. offered.

“It is our hope,” Beckman said in the Dec. 3 statement, “that today’s decision clears the way for the Bottom Line to act constructively, to pay the judgment, and to proceed in good faith to sign the lease they proposed and we sent to them some two months ago.”

Taylor said N.Y.U. wouldn’t accept the club’s counteroffer.

“At this point, we’re not interested in negotiating. We gave them the lease,” he said.

For his part, Pepper was still hoping that things can be worked out with the university and that the club would be able to stay even though the judge has granted an eviction warrant.

“Even though a court has ruled, N.Y.U. can do what they want,” he noted.

Asked if he’d given thought to relocating the club, Pepper said, “It’s certainly been suggested. Right now, I’d like to stay here. If there’s a reality I can’t stay here, then I’ll think about it. This location means a lot to me.”

Pepper was surprised that N.Y.U., by not giving the club a lease, would be willing to forfeit the $185,000 from Sirius and also $10,000 scholarships Sirius planned to offer N.Y.U. students.

“You think my tables and chairs are worth $185,000?” he asked, referring to the extent of what will be left for marshals.

Despite the conciliatory tone he has strived to take thus far, Pepper tired of the “N.Y.U. as nonprofit subsidizing a for-profit business” refrain.

“Look at their real estate holdings,” Pepper said. “They’re certainly not a nonprofit. Look at their endowment. They shouldn’t be allowed to keep saying that.”

But N.Y.U.’s Taylor said the rent the university was offering the Bottom Line, $65 per sq. ft., was significantly below the $85 per sq. ft. realtors quoted as market rate for the space. Taylor said the high renovation cost the university demanded was necessary because “things had to be maintained.” N.Y.U. uses the rest of the space in the seven-story building, and Taylor said that at one point, water was leaking into an N.Y.U. classroom below the club. However, the university also expected Pepper to pay for renovating the club’s exterior, which Pepper and others felt was excessive given that N.Y.U. owns the building.

In response to Pepper’s saying N.Y.U. should stop calling itself nonprofit, Taylor said, “We’re clearly an educational institution. We’re in the business of educating students.”

Pepper also said N.Y.U. representatives were misleading when they stated that the university was only trying to collect rent arrears, not evict the club.

Speaking at a Greenwich Village Chelsea Chamber of Commerce lunch last month, John Sexton, N.Y.U.’s president, acknowledged the club’s place in Village lore, but wondered if the Bottom Line of today was the same club as before. He said the university had been “quite generous” towards the club, even while “starved for space.”

“If we agree to give it to them for below market-rate rent, we’re subsidizing them,” Sexton said. “This is coming out of financial aid and other things for the school…. What’s my prediction? They will mount as much pressure as they can, but they won’t do anything different, and they’ll be out.”

As Dar Williams, her guitar in hand and a warm hat on her head, was saying goodbye at the door before heading out into the cold and Pepper was sitting at a table giving a radio interview last Friday night, Susan Goren spoke about her memories of seeing great acts at the club over the years.

“There was a Jerry Garcia and Pharaoh Saunders double bill,” she recalled. “I saw John Mayo on that stage, Edgar Winter on that stage. My life has been here.”

In the meantime, the club has concerts scheduled through New Year’s Eve.

Hiatt was asked his thoughts as he was foraging out into the wintry night that he’d sung about in a rollicking adlibbed “Winter Blues.”

“Alan sort of gave me my first shake up here,” he said. “It’s an important place. It’ll be sad if it goes.”



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