Volume 74, Number 46 | March 16 - 22, 2005

Hilly Kristal, owner of CBGB and an East Villager for 32 years, with Sofi Staley, 10 months, looks over some ad copy for upcoming bands. Sofi’s mom has been CBGB’s manager for 18 years and Kristal considers her practically family.

CBGB case lands in court, but rent rocks club’s future

By Lincoln Anderson

The future of CBGB could lie in the hands of a judge.

On Feb. 25, the Bowery Residents’ Committee took Hilly Kristal, owner of the famed punk rock club, to court for failure to pay a rent increase over the past three years totaling $75,000.

Civil Court Judge Joan Kenney, a Greenwich Village resident, the same judge who presided on a previous case in 2001 in which B.R.C. sought to collect $300,000 in back rent from the club, has the case again. In the 2001 case, Kenney oversaw an agreement under which CBGB paid off the $300,000 in installments, at this point, having almost paid it all off.

The new rent battle, however, could spell the end for the club, if Judge Kenney takes a hard line. Under an agreement from the 2001 case, a failure to pay rent can be grounds for the legendary 31-year-old music club’s immediate eviction.

But Kristal is more concerned about the fact that B.R.C. plans to raise his rent to $40,000 come August, double his current rent. Since 1993, B.R.C. — an organization providing outreach, meals, training and housing for the homeless — has held a 45-year master lease on the four-story building at 315 Bowery at E. First St. Kristal has CBGB on the ground floor and CB’s Gallery, next door, on the ground floor and basement level. The landlord is GF Associates.

B.R.C. has a drop-in shelter and transitional and permanent housing on the floors above the clubs.

Kristal said three representatives from B.R.C. came to visit him last spring and told him the rent would be going up to $55 per sq. ft. for ground-floor space and $25 per sq. ft. for the basement. Asked that would come to, he says he was told, $38,000 to $40,000.

Kristal claims he was essentially set up by B.R.C. — that he wasn’t even aware that he had to pay the rent increases after 2001. He says B.R.C. wants him out so it can subdivide the space and put in more commercial tenants to generate more revenue.

“With Extra Pl. opening up in the back, and a big new building coming in, I’m sure they can subdivide it into six spaces and make $60,000 to $90,000,” he said, referring to a new apartment building in the works and the development of a small cul de sac off First St., Extra Pl.

“I’m going to do everything to force the issue,” Kristal said. “I think it’s morally obscene.”

Meanwhile, Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of B.R.C., says Kristal’s not paying the rent and forcing him to pay legal fees just means more money he has to fundraise for the organization to help homeless people.

“We’re not commercial landlords. They’re the only commercial tenant we have,” said Rosenblatt.

As for why Kristal wasn’t notified of the rent increase, Rosenblatt called it an accounting glitch.

Rosenblatt added that after the fire at the Great White show at a Rhode Island nightclub in the summer of 2003 in which almost 100 people died, Kristal was hit with violations for not having a public assembly permit, insufficient egrees and flammable curtains, and that this was putting the club’s patrons — and B.R.C. residents — in danger.

“I’ve got 175 people living in the building,” Rosenblatt said. “I’ve got staff here. I’ve got people living in the building 40 or 50 years, longer than CBGB’s been there.”

The building, still known as the Palace Hotel, was formerly a flophouse.

Kristal said these violations were all for CB’s Gallery, not CBGB, and that he made all the necessary changes quickly: widening a door by 2 in., lopping a few inches off the edge of a stage and replacing two flammable curtains with fireproof ones.

Still, Rosenblatt said, “My goal is not to get rid of CBGB.” In fact, he said, he used to go to the club.

“When Michelle Shocked came out of seclusion and did three days at CBGB, I was there every single night,” he said.

“Nostalgia,” Kristal said, not impressed by Rosenblatt’s former patronage.

If the rent is $40,000, he’ll have to close the clubs, he said. He won’t consider closing CB’s Gallery, in hopes of keeping CBGB open, feeling that the art shows, music and poetry readings at the 19-year-old Gallery are equally important as the hardcore rock at CBGB.

“I’ve had 20 plays in the Gallery. I’ve had art shows, poetry readings. Do you think I make any money on this? I’m doing what I love to do.”

Kristal says his clubs currently aren’t turning a profit, as it is, and that he’s only making money now on T-shirt sales, on which he grosses $2 million a year.

A $30 million organization, B.R.C. has over a dozen sites, 750 units of housing and serves 8,000 individuals per year. Rosenblatt said Kristal’s spaces provide less than 1 percent of B.R.C.’s annual budget.

Though some of the acts who have performed at CBGB want to do a benefit for Kristal, he’s not keen on the idea, feeling he would just be pocketing the money without hope for saving the club — it wouldn’t raise enough cash to pay the rent for the long term.

“I’m not going to have a benefit, because that’s false pretenses,” he said. “MTV wants to, there’s talk of Green Day, the Beastie Boys, a lot of people — but what are we doing it for?”

Kristal said he’s received encouraging words from Councilmember Alan Gerson and hopes to count on his support.

“I know my councilman wants me to stay,” he said.

“The choices are, if people want me here — they should make their case known. I think the only thing that could do something is the city, or the politicians, or the [B.R.C.] board of directors.”

As Kristal spoke on the phone, a band was tuning up in the background.

“They came here all the way from Sweden,” Kristal said, his mood lightening momentarily. “Last night we had an Irish hardcore band here. It was great — because you had the drumbeat, but you had the 4/4 rhythms.”

For now, at least, the music goes on.

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