By Karen Rempel
The New York State Senate Bill S6458, the “Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019,” came a few months too late to save the Cornelia Street Café. But at least the Café’s former landlord and its managing agent, the terrible duo Mark Scharfman and Mitchell Rothken, are hoist on their own stinky petard.
At the time of its closing on January 1st, 2019, the Cornelia Street Café’s rent was $33,000 per month. It’s now listed on LoopNet for $17,750 per month. How did this happen?
Robin Hirsch, owner of the Cornelia Street Café, introduced me to Lee Kostrinsky, who had the answer to this question. Hirsch’s friend Kostrinsky is the former co-owner of Smalls Jazz Club, which shared the same landlord as the Café. Kostrinsky tried to negotiate on Hirsch’s behalf with the landlord last November, shortly before the Café closed for good. He offered Rothken $18,000 per month in a desperate effort to save the Café. Kostrinsky recalls that Rothken laughed at him on the phone. Rothken said he had CVS interested, and Duane Reed. Kostrinsky recalls, “He said he had offers. All these corporations, Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Rothken laughed. The Café closed. We all mourned. But that’s not the end of the story.
Kostrinsky recalls getting a phone call from Rothken on April 6th, 2019. “I’ll never forget it. [Rothken] told me, ‘I lowered the rent. It’s $20,000.’” Kostrinsky replied, “We were willing to give you that in December.” Rothken said, “Oh well, whatever.”
Kostrinsky passed Rothken’s offer on to Hirsch, who said, “I’m not willing to move back to that location, it’s too painful.”
Hoping to reopen a music club at 29 Cornelia Street, Kostrinsky brought in an architect to look at the space on April 15th. When Hirsch vacated the space, he was required to remove all the fixtures down to bare walls and floors. The anticipated tenant, Duane Reed, didn’t need a kitchen. (Yet Rothken’s current rental listing for the space on LoopNet inaccurately says, “The space boasts … a kitchen and bar on each level.” He forgot to say, “In your imagination.”) The architect said that with current code requirements, the place would need a lot of work to return it to a functioning bar or restaurant, including making it wheelchair accessible and putting in handicap bathrooms.
Kostrinsky attributes the drastic drop in rent to the fact that there has been a large quantity of new commercial space built, such as the recently completed Hudson Yards. “If you’re going to spend $70,000 on commercial space, you’ll go into the new ones.” As a result, the older small spaces are getting squeezed; their infrastructures don’t work, the pipes don’t work.
This is no doubt a factor, but also coming into play is the fact that the worm has turned, and landlords are no longer favored by New York real estate regulations and tax laws. Unfortunately, this turning came just a few months too late for the Cornelia Street Café.
Cornelia Street Café in Exile Plans Meatpacking Extravaganza
Robin Hirsch is still looking for ways to keep the Cornelia Street Café alive in exile while the search continues for a new home. He has been talking with the Meatpacking District’s Business Improvement District (BID), which manages event programming in the neighborhood, about doing an outdoor festival on September 15th. The usual Café shenanigans and hooligans are anticipated, including performances by Café stellars David Amram, Arturo O’Farrill, the Bond Street Theater Stilt Band, Greg Osby, and Billy Newman.