Artists battle to stay in homes over City Hall (the restaurant)

By Janel Bladow

The battle between residents of 131 Duane St. and the building’s owners, Henry Meer and his partners in City Hall restaurant, is heating up again.

The landlords hope to replace the eight artists’ lofts above the restaurant with an extended-stay luxury hotel. The glitch in their plans is that the artists are rent-stabilized and have the right to indefinite lease renewals under the provisions of the Loft Law.

To get around this, attorneys for the building owners have filed an application with the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal to demolish the building. Their argument: a provision of the rent regulations that allows a landlord to evict tenants if the building is to be demolished.

According to the application with D.H.C.R., which must approve the plan, the attorneys claim that Meer wants to “internally demolish the existing structure.” The plans filed with the Department of Buildings show that only partitions, bathrooms and kitchens put in by the artists and tenants in the floors above the restaurant will be demolished. The building’s four walls, floors, interior support columns, restaurant, and kitchens on the first floor and basement will remain intact.

“Basically, this is a gut rehab, not a complete rehabilitation,” said Robert Petrucci, attorney for the tenants. “Our argument is that a gut rehab doesn’t qualify for eviction.

“Our next issue is that this provision to allow eviction of rent stabilized tenants was for demolition of dilapidated buildings to create more and better housing or commercial spaces for the community. They want to replace a perfectly sound building which recently was legalized with a C of O (Certificate of Occupancy) with a luxury extended-stay hotel,” Petrucci says.

Petrucci adds a third issue. “This is a unique joint living/working building for artists. The application has no promise for relocating them nor do they take into account the type of housing that is being demolished.”

Meer did not return calls seeking comment. Kara Rakowski of the law firm representing him, Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman, said it is company policy not to comment on ongoing matters.

Several of the tenants lived in the building decades before Meer and his partners bought it in 1998.

The tenants’ said in a joint statement: “We are some of the early pioneers who moved into this area 30 years ago – long before loft living was chic, well before Tribeca even had a name, and way before anyone would have ever considered locating a high-end restaurant here, much less a luxury hotel.”

Residents include retired anthropology professor and social activist Jim Haughton, 74, who moved into the building with his wife in the mid-70s. Photographer Jed Devine, whose works are in the collections of MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum and other top museums around the world, is a long-time resident of the building. His daughter Siobhan was born there and attended nearby Stuyvesant High School.

“I moved into the building in 1973, over 30 years ago,” said sculptor Donna Dennis, a professor at SUNY Purchase and a spokesperson for the tenants. “This is terribly unsettling. They want to get rid of members of our community and replace us with transients.”

Dennis, in her 60s and known for her large installations, created the whimsical decorative fence around P.S. 234 in Tribeca by first making full-scale models in foam core on a long wall in her studio.

“I was only able to do this in a large studio,” she said. “If I lose this space, I don’t know what will happen. I can’t afford a similar space in Manhattan or Brooklyn.

“I’m a single woman with friends here, a life here. Leaving here would mean the end of the life I built.”

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