Volume 76, Number 8 | July 12 - 18, 2006

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Alexander Achilleos with his binders containing some of 7,800 signatures on a petition to save The Place on W. Fourth St.

The Place hopes it will avoid being shown the door

By Janet Kwon

With folded arms and slightly slumped shoulders, Alexander Achilleos showed visible signs of worry. His white linen shirt creased near the collar as he bent over an iced drink. Around him, chattering New Yorkers filed into The Place, his cozy, candlelit restaurant, for a Saturday evening dinner. The restaurant’s buzz of activity, surely indicative of a high-profit evening, should have been music to the ears of Achilleos, who has owned the Greenwich Village eatery for nine years. However, he has deeper concerns. After all, what’s one night’s profit if the very existence of his restaurant is in danger?

“I’ve poured my whole heart into this. Where am I going to go? What am I going to do now?” Achilleos pondered, gesturing around the dining room.

A former architect turned restaurateur, Achilleos, 42, moved to New York from London nine years ago in search of a career change; tired of designing restaurants for other people, he opened one himself.
“I had a very good career, a huge salary, I lived like a king…. I found a tiny little hole in the wall in a part of the West Village that nobody ever used to come to,” he explained.

The Place sits on the bottom floor of a five-story tenement building on 310 W. Fourth St. The building, owned by Edith Rappy, includes 17 apartments and houses approximately 60 residents. Achilleos’s initial lease with Rappy was contracted to last until May 31 of this year but they struck a verbal lease renewal in April 2005. According to Achilleos, his lease was promised renewal contingent on his making several renovations to the building to bring it up to code for emergency exits.

Since the agreement, Achilleos hired a team of zoning analysts and architects to create a safe and secure emergency exit route. He even got the permission of a neighbor, Andrew Brust, to make a passageway through his property as part of the exit plan. Brust, however, said that he would allow this under one condition: if Rappy and her representative, Milton Taube of Taube Management, agreed to renew Achilleos’s lease.

But that didn’t happen, and the verbal agreement never bore any fruit. This May, with the renovations nearing completion, Taube broke the news to Achilleos.

“[Taube] told me that the owner had changed her mind, and she didn’t want to renew the lease,” Achilleos said. Pressed to give a reason for the sudden change of heart, neither Rappy nor Taube has issued any comments to date.

“For God’s sake, I take care of the garbage for the whole building, and they don’t give me a nickel for it…I’ve never had a single altercation with them — never had a ‘Where’s the rent?’ and never had a ‘You didn’t pay this,’ or, ‘You didn’t pay that,’” Achilleos stressed. Achilleos has spent approximately $68,000 on the renovations, which cleared two of the building’s three safety violations for lacking a suitable emergency exit. The last violation didn’t get cleared, since Rappy reneged on the verbal lease renewal before the construction was finished.

Also, Achilleos mentioned that he helped Rappy out of a number of landmark violations several years ago by “restoring the storefront to the [appearance of the] original drawing,” in order to comply with what the building was originally approved for, costing him about $14,000. All of these funds came from his own pocket.

“I felt pretty confident that they knew my track record — that I was a good tenant. Why would I ever imagine that I wouldn’t be renewed, after everything that I’ve done for them?” he questioned. He emphasized that he would have never invested so much time and money if he had any inkling that he wouldn’t be renewed, adding that the previous tenant was there for over 23 years, which further led him to believe that he would get renewed after his nine-year tenure.

In lieu of a lease renewal, Rappy offered Achilleos a lease extension until July 31 in a “take it or leave it” manner, according to Achilleos. Given no other options, he took the extension. Come late May, Achilleos received the June rent statement from Rappy, which he paid “in good faith as always.”

To his surprise, on June 6, Achilleos said that he received an attorney’s letter, stating that Rappy was taking him to court for being a holdover tenant. The letter stated that he had stayed past the original lease agreement date of May 31 and it did not mention the July 31 extension.

Aggravated and confused, Achilleos contacted his lawyer, Karen Burstein (former Family Court judge and past attorney general candidate) who suggested an injunction. However, a valid injunction can only be filed before the end of the lease — which is documented as May 31, because similar to the renewal agreement, the July extension was also verbal.

“They had sent me that statement to keep me jollying along — they thought, ‘Just lull him into a sense of security and send him his statement so he doesn’t act before the 31st of May.’ Then, boom. They’re all lined up ready to strike,” Achilleos sighed.

Achilleos made it clear to Rappy and Taube that he was willing to pay a higher rent, even offering to buy the building for $7.5 million in order to save the restaurant. Both offers were denied.

With no reasons given by Rappy and Taube, neither of whom returned calls for this article, Achilleos was left in the dark, but prepared to fight. Judge Jane S. Solomon will hear their dispute in court on July 31, and depending on the parties’ presentations, she will decide whether or not to hear the entire case.

“Ideally, we have to have a strong enough opening statement that encourages her to want to hear the whole case, because there are no real laws to protect commercial leaseholders. It’s really a fight about equity, respect and honesty and the fact that I expended money to enhance the value of their property based on a renewal agreement,” Achilleos said.

Word of his situation seeped out from his 25 employees to loyal Place patrons as well as neighboring small businesses. In an effort organized by Food Shelter, a public relations firm representing The Place, more than 7,800 petition signatures were collected in about 11 weeks. Also, The Place received letters from many of the charities that it supports.

“We support over 200 charities, one way or another, by donating 10 percent of our operating profits to them,” Achilleos said.

While a slice of the petition signatures came through their support Web site, www.savetheplace.com, the majority are from regulars who sign when they come to dine.

“I hope the owners can come to some agreement and offer Alex a new lease. It would be a shame to lose our home away from home,” Elaine Clark, a Place regular said.

“This is truly a local bar and restaurant where the staff remember you from your last visit, welcome you back and make you feel at home. I think there are too few of these type of places left in the West Village. The changes in the West Village’s infrastructure are putting an end to the small entrepreneur,” she continued.

Kim Herzinger, owner of Left Bank Books, a small used and rare bookstore just a few doors down from The Place, shares Clark’s sentiments.

“That restaurant is just simply a kind of jewel in the neighborhood. It’s a place we don’t want to lose. It has a quality that we cannot replace,” Herzinger said. He described The Place as having a rare Village authenticity.

Herzinger went on to admit that Achilleos’s situation gives him trepidations about his own business’s survival.

“He’s willing to buy the building; he’s willing to make renovations; he gives money to charity; I mean, what more do you want?” Herzinger questioned. “If he’s getting kicked out, as successful as he’s been, what about me? What about a little kind of crummy looking bookstore two doors down?”

Although The Place has garnered quite the following during its nine years, Achilleos realizes he’s up against the wall and he’s not getting his hopes too high.

“Do I think I have a good case?” he said. “No, I don’t, because they [Rappy and Taube] are going to go all the way, and they’re going to try to make me look like I’m a bad guy, and that I don’t know what I’m talking about and that I have a bad memory,” he said.

“But you know what makes a successful restauranteur?” he asked. “Your memory. I remember everyone that comes through that door, that’s what made me here for nine years.” Achilleos has another The Place on W. 10th St., but it doesn’t have the following of his original W. Fourth St. one.

Achilleos’s posture and demeanor morphed from anxious to resolute as he spoke passionately about what The Place means to him as well as to the community. He flipped through two voluminous, white binders, which contained portions of the lengthy petition. After running his hands over the pages, he firmly shut the top binder with controlled composure.

“It’s quite simple,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere. This is my whole life. I’ll be chained to those railings until the police come and take me.”

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