Volume 76, Number 12 | August 9 - 15, 2006

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Phil Alotta on Monday at the auction of Chelsea Grill’s contents.

Hetero outpost in Chelsea will fall to the wrecking ball

By Lincoln Anderson

Phil Alotta pulled down the heavy metal gate outside his restaurant Chelsea Grill last Sunday afternoon. Then he and his wife, Carolyn, attached several heavy padlocks to secure it. They would only close up one more time. An auction of the place’s contents was scheduled for Monday, after which Chelsea Grill’s 15 years at the location would come to an end.

A new six-story, residential building with upscale retail on the ground floor is slated for most of the block on the west side of Eighth Ave. between 16th St. and 17th Sts., extending back through the block to Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly Playground. Several one-story buildings, as well as three early 19th-century, four-story houses will be razed to make way for the new building. While the apartments above were mostly empty in recent years, the ground floors were home to a thriving strip of popular neighborhood eateries and small businesses. In addition to Chelsea Grill, Cajun — a New Orleans-themed restaurant featuring nightly jazz — was forced to close, as was Service Station, a hair and tanning salon that offered $5 off for lunch-hour trims. There was also a pizza place, and, until a few years ago, a hand-rolled cigar store. On the other hand, the former Rebar bar on the corner was plagued by violence over the years.

“There ain’t a lot to say — 15 years,” commented Alotta.

“They planned this for 10 years,” he said of the landlords, the Ponte family, who are known for their property holdings in Tribeca and Hudson Square.

According to cityrealty.com, earlier this year, Centaur Properties entered a 99-year lease for the property with Almavi Eighth Avenue LLC, of which Vincent J. Ponte is a principal. Centaur expects to begin construction on the apartment building by the end of the year and finish within a year. The project is as of right, needing no public approvals, and will contain 50 apartments. A decision on whether it will be rentals or condominiums hasn’t been made yet. Winnick Properties is handling the marketing of the retail space, which will have 12,000 square feet with 16-foot ceilings on the ground floor and 10,000 square feet with 13-foot ceilings on the lower level, and is expected to be available in the fall of 2007, cityrealty.com reported. Alotta said he’s heard a bank will be an anchor tenant.

Late last Friday afternoon, inside Cajun, behind its halfway-rolled-down gate, Arlene Lichterman was packing up and getting ready for Monday’s auction, to be handled by the same auctioneer who would be taking care of Chelsea Grill.

“I think the more important story is we’re an institution — 28 years,” she said, adding she was so harried it would be best to talk on Sunday.

“There’s been rumors for years,” she continued on Sunday, speaking on the phone. “And, you know, the rumors come and go — and you think it’s over. They’re doing what everyone else is doing in New York. There are more million-dollar apartments in New York than anyone can afford. There was a charm in New York. There’s $20 cocktails in the Meat Market. It’s happening everywhere in New York City — particularly in Chelsea.”

Cajun, founded by co-owner Herb Maslin, was the only place in Manhattan that offered traditional jazz from the 1920s and ’30s seven nights a week.

Chelsea Grill’s Alotta had a few years left on his lease. He was persuaded to leave through a combination of a buyout and the Pontes finding him a place on Spring between Thompson and Sullivan Sts. where he plans to open a new riposo, a wine bar with tappas, assuming he closes the deal. He said he also hopes to find another location in Chelsea with a rent somewhere between “archaic rents and 21st-century rents.”

Alotta has relocated the Chelsea Grill staff, many of whom were there for the whole run, to other restaurants he owns, Chelsea Grill of Hell’s Kitchen and Riposo 46, both on Ninth Ave. at 46th St.

If there’s a possible upside, he noted, “A lot of customers from Chelsea have moved to Hell’s Kitchen — they’re following along with us.”

Tim Gay, a former Democratic district leader who lives in the corner building at 17th St. that isn’t being torn down, said the strip of restaurants was one of the places straights congregated in Chelsea.

“Chelsea Grill was a major hangout for the heterosexuals,” he said.

But Alotta said his customer base in Chelsea was a 50/50 mix of gays and straights. Priced out of Chelsea, gays have already been leaving for a while already, Alotta said. He said he hears that, after Hell’s Kitchen, the next gay exodus will be to Washington Heights.

Alotta said business has been down anyway all along Eighth Ave. for the past year, about 20 percent less than usual. He said the competition from the nightlife and restaurants in the Meat Market was the reason.

According to several neighbors and the owner of Camouflage men’s clothing store next to the development site, the Pontes also relocated some tenants from the upstairs apartments — including an elderly women and a family — to very nice apartments in Tribeca.

Passersby who were reading the farewell sign on the door of Chelsea Grill last Friday evening said they just hope the new building won’t resemble the high-rise across the street — the Grand Chelsea — the design of which most consider an abomination. The neighborhood keeps upscaling and affordable stores that sell things people who live in the neighborhood need are disappearing, said Lee Fergusson, who lives around the corner.

“It’s not good because the whole neighborhood is becoming generic,” said Fergusson. “The deli on the corner just had its rent raised from $10,000 to $30,000. So the neighborhood loses its deli and what goes in there? Gay T-shirts….”

Three other old buildings on 18th St. were also recently demolished. State Senator Tom Duane said the hope was that the Chelsea Plan, which was passed in 1998, would preserve low-rise buildings on Eighth Ave. by downzoning Eighth Ave. and allowing taller buildings on Sixth Ave. and 23rd St. But, clearly, the downzoning isn’t stopping the wrecking ball.

“The Grand Chelsea was the one that spurred everyone into action,” Duane said. “That’s when people realized, ‘My God, Eighth Ave. could turn into the Upper East Side with towers.’ These new buildings will be low-rise — but they’re still destroying buildings.”

Unfortunately for Cajun’s co-owners, the landlord didn’t offer them any buyout or new location.

On Tuesday, Lichterman complained that the auction was awful. The price for her Fish’s Eddy plates was so low, she said she’s taking them back.

“Thirty dollars for 500 dishes…. I might write a letter on auctioneers,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

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