Where have all the restaurants gone? A stroll down Hudson Street from Abingdon Square to Christopher Street used to make West Village residents feel lucky and tourists wish they lived there. Now, instead of the bustle and hum of the mostly one-of-a-kind small restaurants that once lined the street, pedestrians are confronted with a string of vacant storefronts, whitewashed windows, and blaring “For Rent” signs. The carnage is everywhere, as though a little cyclone blew through the neighborhood and knocked the businesses right out of it.
On Hudson alone, the losses have been heavy: Alfama, Da Andrea, Valdino West, Monster Sushi, Mama Buddha, Pizza Lucca, and Hudson Corner Café are all history. The recession was to blame, first and foremost, but so was a laissez-faire system that left small business owners vulnerable to the whim of a capricious landlord.
The late, lamented Da Andrea, a neighborhood favorite, was one of the luckier ones; after being pushed out by a near tripling of his rent, owner Gianpietro Branchi found a new space on West 13th Street. Branchi had received a letter from his landlord, William Gottlieb Management Co., in January announcing that in February his rent would increase from $11,000 a month to $27,500. “We tried to negotiate,” says Branchi, but Gottleib would not settle for less than $25,000.
The Gottlieb company, which controls vast holdings of Manhattan real estate, is well known for both the level of dissatisfaction it has stirred among its residential and commercial tenants, and the divisive fights that have erupted among founder William Gottlieb’s heirs after his death in 1999. Reid Rosen, Branchi’s real estate lawyer, says that although he has other clients interested in the former Da Andrea site, Neil Bender, Gottlieb’s nephew, now administrator for the estate, seems unwilling to enter into negotiations. Although Bender has retained a broker, Ripco Real Estate, for the site, attempts to arrange meetings and enter into negotiations have all fizzled, says Rosen.
Miguel Jeronimo, co-owner of the recently closed Alfama, the elegant Portuguese restaurant on the corner of Hudson and Perry, went through a similar, impossible-to-negotiate standoff with the Gottlieb company. As the restaurant struggled to keep afloat during the economic downturn, Jeronimo learned that his storefront was being advertised for $27,000 a month from the blog eater.com. At the time, he was paying $13,000 a month. Unable to reach an agreement with Gottlieb, Alfama closed in early August. The company is now asking $21,000 a month for the space, but even that, says Jeronimo, “is impossible” for any restaurateur to afford. “After 10 years here, I know what I’m talking about,” he says.
The Gottlieb company had stopped sending Alfama’s owners the sewer and water bills after 2003. Jeronimo asked for the bills but was told not to worry about it. When Alfama announced it was leaving, Gottlieb management presented Geronimo with a $111,000 bill for the unpaid utility bills plus interest. The matter remains unresolved. Lin-Hua Wu, spokesperson for Gottlieb, declined to comment for this article.
Alfama owners Jeronimo and Tarcisio Costa were showered with phone calls and e-mail from distraught customers after they announced their departure, and are now searching for a new space, preferably downtown. Jeronimo says updates will eventually be posted on the restaurant’s website.
“There are no restrictions whatsoever on commercial spaces in New York,” says Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “A landlord can make rent 100 times what it was before, and nothing stops them from doing that. In some cases they seem to do things that are penny wise but pound foolish, significantly raising rents on the assumption it will bring in more money. Sometimes storefronts go empty for months, if not years. It brings down the retail as well as the general environment of the street. Short-sightedness, and in some cases I would even say, the greed of some owners is a big part of the problem.”
“When you walk down Hudson Street, you’d think that there’s something going on, a blight in the neighborhood, but it’s just Mr. Bender,” says Rosen. “You have to ask, why would someone do this? The cash flow situation makes no sense. People think it’s insane that he won’t rent those spaces.”
Carolyn Epstein, co-owner of the Biography Bookshop at Bleecker and West 11th Street, which is moving to a location on Bleecker between Sixth and Seventh Avenues to make room for another Marc Jacobs store, says, “A lot of places on Hudson think they can command the same rents as where we are now, but I don’t think the big corporations are necessarily interested.”
The two remaining Gottlieb restaurant tenants on the same block that was home to Alfama and Da Andrea were reluctant to discuss their situations. “He’s our landlord,” says Arshad Sayed, an owner of Café Panino Mucho Giusto, simply. Pepe Verde’s owners are living with a month-to-month lease and fear it is only a matter of time before they, too, are forced to decamp.
As the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the Gottlieb company and its Hudson Street restaurant tenants continues, residents watch, helpless. Except for Jane Street resident Mike Joyce, founder of Stereotype Design. On a recent morning, Joyce affixed a yellow postcard with black lettering he had designed and printed to the window of the sorry shell that was once Valdino West, another Gottlieb property. It read:
P.S. This article grew out of a concern for what was happening to restaurants in my West Village