Volume 16 • Issue 52 | May 21 - 27, 2004

Building owners move closer to plan to evict artists

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Tenants living above City Hall restaurant rallied outside the eatery earlier this month to protest the owners’ plan to evict them and do interior demolition.

On April 29, the city Department of Buildings approved construction plans filed by the owners of 131 Duane St., the landmark building that is home to City Hall restaurant, to demolish parts of the interior.

The decision moved Henry Meer and his partners in the development one step closer toward their goal of building an extended-stay luxury hotel in the five-story landmark building. This would involve evicting the rent-stabilized residents living above the restaurant, who have vigorously protested the plans.

The owners have declared their intention to evict tenants; the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal will decide whether the owners are able to oust the tenants, but it remains unclear when the agency will make its ruling. An agency spokesperson said he could not comment on pending matters.

Many fear that a decision in favor of the restaurant owners would set an alarming precedent. Under law, rent-stabilized tenants can be evicted if their owner is going to demolish the building. But 131 Duane involves only an internal rehab, not a complete demolition, opponents argue.

Robert Petrucci, a housing attorney representing the residents of 131 Duane, said he was not aware of any similar cases in New York City where owners argued for an internal demolition to evict rent-stabilized tenants.

“It is a very dangerous thing,” Petrucci said in a telephone interview.

Chuck DeLaney, the tenants’ representative on the New York City Loft Board, agreed. Demolition has previously referred only to tearing down a building, not to the kind of internal work proposed by the 131 Duane owners, he said.

“In this instance, a novel interpretation has been advanced, and were that to succeed, I think it’d be a very serious new loophole,” DeLaney said.

The wait to learn their fate has left many tenants anxious.

“I’m trying to work and paint and not have it bother me, but I’m more rattled than I thought,” said Bruce Porter, 61, a painter and professor at Hunter College who with his wife has lived in a 2,700 square foot live/work space at 131 Duane since the mid-1970s. At that time, he said, Duane St. was a hub for wholesale shoes, with trucks making pickups and deliveries at all times of the day and night. There was no hint then of the tony neighborhood that Tribeca would become.

Since the building is an exterior landmark, any construction on it requires the approval of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission; the commission has issued a declaration of appropriateness certifying that the proposed renovations will not harm the building’s facade, said Robert Tierney, chair of the Commission, in a telephone interview.

New York State Assemblymember Deborah Glick, State Senator Martin Connor and City Councilmember Alan Gerson have all written letters in support of the tenants at 131 Duane.

Meer did not return a call for comment on this article, and he has not returned previous calls from Downtown Express to discuss the matter.


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