Meat Market icon Florent tries to avoid Maries fate
By Albert Amateau
Florent Morellet, a founder of a group whose efforts led to the 2003 designation of the Gansevoort Market Historic District, has been operating the restaurant that bears his name in the districts heart for the past 23 years.
But while historic district designation protects buildings, it does not protect the businesses inside the buildings.
And the survival of Florent, the 24-hour restaurant at 69 Gansevoort St. where meatpackers, clubgoers, shoppers and neighbors meet to eat at their appointed hours, is threatened.
It would be a big loss of a thriving pioneer business and of a colorful neighborhood icon. Morellet, 54, a native of France, holds court as Marie Antoinette for the Bastille Day celebration on July 14 at the restaurant and has a gala Gay Pride celebration in June.
But his lease on the two-story building expires on March 31 and his formerly sweet relationship with his landlord has soured, while the district that used to be dominated by meat wholesalers, cross-gender hookers and louche nightspots has become nearly genteel, as high-end shops, restaurants and lounges have taken over.
Three years ago, Morellet asked his landlord, Joanne Lucas, to extend his lease beyond the March 31, 2008, term. He offered to pay $18,000 per month, three times the present rent.
But it wasnt enough, Morellet recalled. Real estate owners would consider me a good tenant. I take care of the building shes not here, she lives in Massachusetts Ive been paying rent, sometimes early when she asked for it, to the same family for 23 years, he said, recalling that he first signed a lease with Lucass grandfather.
Real estate sources say the property is already on the market and prospective buyers have been offered the building. One real estate firm has pitched a deal for 69 Gansevoort St. for $350 per square foot annually for the 1,500-square-foot ground floor and $100 per square foot for the 800-square-foot second floor.
Thats about $43,000 a month instead of about $6,000 that I pay now, said Morellet. I could handle $18,000 a month, but not that, he said.
The situation got stickier last August when Morellet told Lucas that he discovered that she had neglected to file for a tax certiorari that would have significantly reduced the property tax bill he has been paying for many years.
All real estate owners do it as a matter of course and its in the lease, he said. To make matters worse, Morellet has been paying all of the real estate tax, instead of two-thirds as called for in the lease. We can only go back six years and it comes to a lot of money, he said, but he declined to say how much.
She got insulted, Morellet said. She said it was my fault that I didnt discover the error before, and said she wouldnt renew my lease Morellet recalled. So we stopped paying rent on Sept. 1. It was the only way that I could collect, he added.
In November, the landlord brought an eviction suit for nonpayment of rent and Morellet filed a countersuit for the real estate tax claim.
On Feb. 5, the cases came before Judge Matthew Cooper, who said he would hand down a written decision on the tax dispute, but specified no date.
Would Morellet open another restaurant if he lost the fight?
No, not now, he said. The business is unique and connected to the neighborhood, he said.
Morellet, born near Nantes, France, studied urban planning in London, spent a year in San Francisco where he got his first taste of the restaurant business, and then went to Paris, where he opened a restaurant.
It was a social success but a financial debacle I was 22 years old, he said of the Paris venture. Morellet came to the Village in April 1978 and managed a Soho restaurant, La Gamelle. He opened Florent in 1985 in the two-story building where R & L Restaurant (whose sign, never lit, spans the front of the second floor) had been located since the 1930s.
We know the place was raided as a speakeasy around 1929, and R & L was here during the Depression when it was a three-story building with tenement apartments on the third floor, Morellet said.
Around 1949, when the city began creating the meat wholesale market in the area west of Ninth Ave. between Horatio and W. 14th Sts., the owners removed the third floor.
All great things have to end, said Morellet, looking to an uncertain future after a fabulous 23 years. Im ready for a new phase in my life. Im excited about it, but part of me is sad.
I think Ill still be open after March 31. I hope at least for Gay Pride on June 29 and maybe another Marie Antoinette.
I might get a reprieve if theres a recession and the real estate bubble bursts. It could begin to look like it did when I opened, he said.