In the end, the judgment came down the way everyone had predicted. After a tug-of-war that began in March with a 30-day eviction notice, nearly 30 years of chasing the American Dream were wiped out in a matter of minutes on July 10 during closed-door negotiations in a nondescript courtroom at the New York County Courthouse.
Punta Cana, the beloved Washington Heights restaurant that has stood at the corner of Broadway and West 162nd Street for at least 40 years, was ordered to vacate by August 15. The restaurant owners reached a settlement with the property owners that will let them stay until then without incurring any more rent or utilities charges. It proved to be little consolation for Jacelyn Santos, the daughter of Angel Santos, the restaurant’s owner.
“We fought, we tried, but this is what it ends up being,” Jacelyn Santos told the Voice. “That was an uphill battle for us and we knew that the whole time.”
In March, real estate investors Coltown Properties — which bought the building in 2012 — presented Santos and the owners of six other small businesses in the building with eviction notices and told them to vacate in 30 days. It appeared that when Coltown took ownership of the building, they declined to renew any of the commercial leases, which ultimately made it easier for them to evict the whole row of businesses. When a lease isn’t renewed, whether for a residential or commercial tenant, landlords can continue renting to the existing tenant under an implied month-to-month agreement until the tenant moves out or a new lease is negotiated. That’s essentially what happened here, says Jose Cotto, the Santoses’ attorney.
“When there’s no lease, the landlord can bring a petition to evict a commercial tenant,” Cotto tells the Voice. “Basically, there’s no defense to a holdover petition because there’s no lease. The bottom line is [Coltown] owns the building.”
Following the settlement, a representative from 3880 Broadway LLC, which was formed by Coltown to develop the property, declined to comment to the Voice about the case. The company was represented by the New York City firm Green & Cohen PC.
The plight of Punta Cana and the other businesses, most immigrant-owned, attracted a fair amount of support from local politicians and tenants’-rights groups, which are now urging the New York City Council to pass a set of laws that will protect small businesses that face similar circumstances. In this instance, however, there wasn’t much that could be done, except negotiate for more time. Some of the businesses received help from the Legal Aid Society and all eventually folded or found new rental space. Punta Cana was the only business that stayed and took the property owners to court.
“If I had a computer store, all I would need is a couple of desks and outlets and that’s it,” Jacelyn Santos says. “A restaurant is different. Equipment is very expensive. You can’t just move the stuff. It has to be tailored, custom-made to the space. So we have to get rid of all that stuff now. It takes time. It’s not that easy. We wanted to give people a chance to find jobs.”
Punta Cana was given the option to stay if the family paid an extra $4,000 a month in rent and moved the restaurant to the back of the building in a narrower space. The current rent is $5,000 a month. The family couldn’t afford the extra money, and moving from their storefront had no appeal.
The restaurant, which occupies about 600 square feet and is more lunch counter than sit-down, serves family-style Dominican food until late into the night. You can order your food inside at the counter or from the window by the door. Santos remembers how they have been the go-to for the late shift and early-morning workers — cab drivers, sanitation workers, cleaning crews. She says the property’s new owners should have taken all of that into consideration before making their demands.
“The landlord was never, ever lenient, considerate, for lack of better words, compassionate, towards us,” Jacelyn Santos says. “You can tell they weren’t working with me. They don’t take into consideration the time you’ve been there. We’re like a staple in the community; they don’t care. At the end of the day, none of that matters to them. It’s the dollar signs. Can you pay? If you cannot, then we have somebody else that can pay.”
On Friday, as the parties negotiated the terms of a settlement before the civil court judge — and later, among themselves — the city was celebrating the U.S. women’s national soccer team in a ticker-tape parade honoring their World Cup 2015 win. Inside the courtroom, however, Santos would lapse into Spanish in anger or despair as her attorney presented her with yet another demand from the owners. Most of the negotiations centered on rent and water charges, which the property owners said were outstanding. According to Cotto, the Santoses’ attorney, the family was liable for two months’ rent and up to $80,000 in water charges. Jacelyn Santos denies the water charges, saying the restaurant could not have accumulated that much usage.
In the end, Jacelyn Santos agrees the settlement was the best the family could have hoped for. If they had gone to trial and lost, they would have been liable to pay for more charges that they likely would not have been able to afford. They would also have been faced with an immediate warrant for eviction.
The family doesn’t know yet what they will do next or how they will send off the restaurant. Jacelyn Santos says they may celebrate the restaurant’s 40-odd years with a final party on August 15. In the meantime, she’s more worried about her father, Angel’s, failing health. One of the reasons they stayed and fought the eviction notice was because he is now 80 years old and starting over for him was not an option.
“He knew this was coming,” she says. “He wasn’t ready, but he was preparing for it.”
It’s also not clear what will replace the block of vacated Latino-owned businesses. There has been speculation among tenants’ -rights groups that the property owners will attract a national chain store. Though the surrounding area is populated with small mom-and-pop stores, with mostly Spanish-speaking tenants and shoppers, it is just a few blocks from Columbia University’s medical campus. As other areas in the city succumb to rising rents, Upper Manhattan has become an attractive alternative for businesses looking to expand and for residents seeking lower rents. Jacelyn Santos understands this turnover, but she would still have preferred to avoid the fate of so many other defunct small businesses.
“You hear the stories of how people just put their life savings into a business,” she says. “They’re hardworking people; they come in every day, they’re in the neighborhood through the good and the bad, and you just get up and tell them, ‘You gotta go’? That’s not easy.”
Like others, she hopes the city institutes a law to protect small businesses.
“Maybe sometime in the future, there’ll be some kind of laws to help out the small businesses like that, ’cause it happens a lot in the city,” she says. “I’m sure that there are landlords out there that have to make business decisions, but they use — you know, there’s the humanity part of it. The law is the law, but Jesus. You build this business up for 20-something years, and in 30 days, you have to go? With no regard whatsoever to the people working there?”
Solange Uwimana is an editorial fellow at the Village Voice.