Volume 22, Number 54 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | May 21 - 27, 2010
Downtown Express photo Jefferson Siegel
Kevin Cunninham of 3-Legged-Dog in 2005. Today Cunningham is fighting the MTA to ensure that his organization remains at the 80 Greenwich St. location, shown above.
3-Legged Dog refuses to roll over for MTA
BY John Bayles
On the surface it appears to be a rather typical dispute between a landlord and a tenant – pay rent or eviction proceedings begin. However, the story is much more complicated because the landlord and tenant in question are anything but typical.
Let’s start with the tenant. The typical tenant doesn’t have a slew of elected officials and community leaders rush to their aid when they fall behind on rent. And the typical landlord is not a public authority.
Last week, 3-Legged Dog (3. L. D.) executive director Kevin Cunningham received a letter from his landlord, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which stated that eviction proceedings were set to begin due to a failure to pay rent and that the organization owed the authority $360,000. Almost as quickly as that letter arrived, Congressman Jerrold Nadler and State Senator Daniel Squadron sent a joint letter to the MTA asking for a suspension of the eviction proceedings and to begin a rent negotiation process to allow the media and theater group to remain at its 80 Greenwich Street location.
“From our point of view this is just as much a disaster as 9/11 or [Hurricane] Katrina,” said Cunningham. “Even though it comes from greed, it is still a disaster.”
Cunningham does not dispute the fact that his group fell behind in rent. However, it is the reason 3.L.D. fell into rental arrears that led to the strong outpouring of support from the community. According to Cunningham and also noted in the letter from Squadron and Nadler, it was the MTA’s failure to hold up their end of the lease agreement in regard to construction involved with the space. Specifically mentioned in the letter was the “failure of the MTA to meet lease requirements to provide asbestos abatement and an ACP-5 unit costing an estimate of $200,000 to group. Also mentioned in the letter was “the failure of the MTA to provide access to water tie-ins and make payments for a sprinkler system, costing an estimate of $135,000” to 3.L.D.
As for the asbestos, Cunningham said, “In the lease it says the space has been abated of asbestos and toxic substances.”
Cunningham then hired a contractor to come and perform some renovations to the space.
“Our contractor came in, knocked down a wall and there was asbestos.”
Then Cunningham said the MTA placed a stop work order on that contractor for three months while Cunningham was still paying for the work to be done.
“Basically they have a rent dispute,” said Senator Squadron. “The real problem is the whole relationship. There has been a lot of cost to 3-Legged Dog and there are lease issues. The goal is to get an agreement.”
Squadron said that as of last Friday the MTA was not responding to the joint letter or to “urgent messages” left on their behalf.
Congressman Nadler seconded Squadron’s remarks in a statement to the Downtown Express.
“3-Legged Dog is an important arts organization, a great asset to the downtown community, and a key player in the cultural resurgence of Lower Manhattan after 9/11 – [the] precipitous action by the MTA jeopardizes [their] survival,” said Nadler. “I will continue to work to ensure that this Lower Manhattan institution is not displaced.”
In a statement sent via email, MTA Spokesperson Kevin Ortiz wrote, “We’ve been working with the theater for over a year to try and reach an agreement that would enable them to stay in the space. They’ve made repeated promises but continue to be unable to pay full rent and they now owe more than $300,000, leaving us no choice but to begin eviction proceedings. At a time when state cuts and deteriorating tax revenues have forced the MTA to lay off station agents and cut service, we are turning over every stone to balance our budget and that includes holding our tenants to their commitments.”
“To say we’ve made promises to them is not true,” said Cunningham. “What we were doing was responding to requests.”
Cunningham said what the MTA characterized as making promises actually referred to the authority’s insistence that 3.L.D. give them weekly updates on revenues and expenses. He said every Friday he would send updates stating from the beginning that the group would be able to resume regular payments come June of this year.
He said that since the back and forth over numbers began the only expenses the group has not been able to reduce is the rent and the Con Edison bill. Minus those two monthly payments, Cunningham said his group has cut all other expenses in half since July of 2009.
“We’ve been able to do that without cutting programs or delaying programs,” said Cunningham.
As far as revenue, Cunningham said 3.L.D.’s revenue has increased 380 percent since the beginning of the last fiscal year. He said he has presented that fact to the MTA and has offered potential solutions to the rental arrears, but all have been “summarily dismissed.”
Cunningham added, “To say we have been negotiating… this characterization is disingenuous. If negotiating is my way or the highway, then that’s negotiating – we think of that as bullying.”
Also coming to the defense of 3.L.D. is Community Board 1 Chairperson Julie Menin. “We’re [sending] a letter to the MTA chairman, basically saying that they have put so much into the project and into the community and the parities have to be willing to negotiate,” she said.
Menin’s point about contributing to the community is a major part of the story, in Cunningham’s view. Greenwich Street and the surrounding area have seen a number of “start-ups” come and go since 9/11, said Cunningham. But 3.L.D. managed to take an “empty, dangerous half-demolished hole that sat empty for 14 years” and turn in into a successful space that has hosted 2,108 artists from 23 different countries and is booked solid through 2012.
“Residential development is finally happening and the people building the condo down the street often bring prospective tenants here to show them that there is this great art space in the neighborhood,” said Cunningham.
As far as the rent goes, Cunningham said on Tuesday that he’s ready to cut a check for a full month’s rent early next week and has communicated as much to the MTA but has received no response. He remains confident that his organization will not be forced to roll over.
“If we can keep 3-Legged Dog open until September,” he said, “we’ll be back on our feet again.”