Alex Achilleos is still vowing to fight. “Absolutely,” the Greenwich Village restaurateur told the Voice on Monday. “This is not a done deal yet.”
Achilleos owns the tiny, wildly popular eatery called The Place, located in the basement of an apartment building at 310 West Fourth Street. For months now, he’s been locked in a heated legal battle with his landlord, Edith Rappy, and her managing agent, Milton Taube, over the fate of The Place. Standing in the hallway of Manhattan Supreme Court, Achilleos sounded resolute, even defiant when he pledged to stand firm, but he looked more shell-shocked than anything else. And who could blame him? Judge Jane Solomon had just thrown out his lawsuit to block the restaurant’s imminent eviction. There were no other legal avenues left.
And so, surrounded by a half dozen employees and supporters, many nodding quietly, he promised to chain himself to his restaurant, as one last, great act, yet again.
“There is no conscience in the courtroom,” he added, while his allies struggled to find words to comfort him.
“It’s a shock,” said one of his 25 employees, now facing the prospect of unemployment.
“It’s very disappointing,” another agreed.
The whole battle began a little more than a year ago, when Achilleos had been told by his landlord that his lease would not be renewed. Intent on staying put, he offered to make a deal: In return for a lease renewal, he would fix three outstanding code violations that were actually the landlord’s responsibility. One had to do with the lack of a fire exit for the upstairs tenants; the other two with an apparently illegal storage shed in the back yard that had served The Place as well as a previous restaurant dating back to the 1970s. In his lawsuit, Achilleos alleged that Taube had agreed to the deal, at least verbally.
He took on the task of fixing the violations. He hired an architect and a zoning analyst; he negotiated with an adjacent property owner for a second egress for the upstairs tenants; and he spent $70,000 to fix the shed. But Achilleos didn’t get his renewed lease. Instead, he got an eviction notice. In June, he filed suit, alleging a breach of contract and harassment.
“I’m a good person by nature,” Achilleos has told the Voice. Indeed, this comes from a businessman who gives 10 percent of his profits to charity. But he’s begun to see how good people don’t always win. “There are things about my good nature that have proved to be foolish at this point,” he said.
Well, not entirely. His stellar reputation in the Village has helped him wage a public-relations campaign. In May, his allies began circulating a petition online to demand his landlord let him stay. To date, Achilleos estimates that he has collected some 9,000 signatures from loyal patrons and neighbors. Fans have sent letters to Taube and Rappy attesting to his character. One Villager had even sent a testimonial to Judge Solomon, who made note of it in court.
None of that ended up mattering much in the courtroom on August 7, of course, when Judge Solomon heard oral arguments on his suit. His attorney, Karen Burstein, argued that her client should be granted a permanent injunction against the eviction, considering that he has fixed the code violations, has paid his rent, and has never gotten a sound reason for the non-renewal of his lease. The landlord’s attorney, Peter Rose, called the complaint over code violations “a red herring.”
“This is a commercial lease,” Rose argued, noting its July 31 expiration date. “Whether or not there are violations in the building is irrelevant. My client is under no legal obligation to renew the lease.”
Evidently, the judge agreed, throwing out all of Achilleos’s causes of action except one-for damages, which Achilleos puts at $500,000. The judge scheduled a hearing to assess the value of The Place and other compensatory penalities on September 25.
“Basically there is no law for commercial leaseholders,” Achilleos said after the hearing. “You can do all this work. You can be a good tenant. There is nothing to protect you.”