By Carol Tannenhauser
In a political season where landlords have been excoriated for forcing out longtime local businesses, one landlord who was trying to do the right thing has been dragged into the mix.
City Council Candidate Mel Wymore has promised to get tough on landlords, who he says are forcing up rents on longtime Upper West Side businesses.
“The unaffordable rents for local businesses today are a result of deliberate choices,” he wrote in a recent press release. “This is one of the biggest reasons I’m running—so we can finally get serious about passing laws which will rein in rents…”
Ironically, Wymore (pictured at right) is running his campaign from a storefront on Broadway between 80th and 81st street at a rent of just $10 per month, thanks to the “deliberate choices” of a landlord who is anything but greedy. This has turned into a political issue, with incumbent Council Member Helen Rosenthal requesting that the Campaign Finance Board investigate the arrangement as an “in-kind contribution” that Wymore has failed to report.
Samantha Levine, a campaign spokesperson for Rosenthal (at left) wrote in an email that Wymore is being “disingenuous at best – and fraudulent at worst” in claiming that the fair market rent is $10. “This kind of sneaky maneuver, if allowed to stand, undermines the public’ faith in the campaign finance process and is exactly why the public is distrustful of so many politicians.”
But Dan Gleick, a spokesperson for Wymore’s campaign, notes that the arrangement was already approved by the Campaign Finance Board. “As on so many issues, Helen simply hasn’t done her homework. Her first instinct is an attack, rather than finding the truth.”
In the middle of it all is landlord George Beane. What did he do to deserve this? He was simply trying to hold onto a valued tenant – Birdbath Bakery – during a tough time for the business.
Let us explain.
Business at the Broadway location – there are two other Birdbath Bakeries on Columbus Avenue – had declined dramatically, in large part due to the scaffolding and sidewalk shed that had engulfed 2244 Broadway since 2015. (It just came down.) This spring, Birdbath was ready to “hand in their keys at that location,” Beane said. He offered to lower the rent, ultimately, to $0, but even then, they couldn’t cover the cost of salaries and services, such as utilities, insurance, and Internet.
Birdbath decided to take a “vacation” – as in “vacate” the store – from June to October, after which the scaffolding would be down, New Yorkers would have returned from their summer vacations, and business would presumably pick up. Beane agreed to the plan because he wanted Birdbath to survive and come back. At the same time, he was uncomfortable about leaving the space empty for four months, likening it to a “missing tooth,” which would have hurt adjacent stores and the neighborhood.
“Mel was in the right place at the right time,” Beane said. Wymore had called him months before, knowing Beane owned buildings, looking for space. When this situation arose, Beane put him in touch with Birdbath’s owner, Maury Rubin, who subleased the space to Wymore for three months and 11 days, at a total cost of $616 per month (including the $10 rent), allowing Birdbath to cover its expenses. (At market rate, that would rent about three square feet.)
Wymore went through the proper channels, running it by the Campaign Finance Board, which approved it pursuant to receiving certification of the arrangement from Beane, which he provided. (We have seen a copy of the sublease and an email from a CFB official.)
Beane has not decided yet whether he will vote for Wymore or Rosenthal. He knows and likes them both personally, but disagrees with their positions on commercial rent regulation, the lease-renewal process, and ways of dealing with vacancies.
“I think they’re both dead wrong and uninformed about the subject,” he said. “They both think landlords benefit somehow by holding out for higher rents. It’s not the landlords. Rents are coming down. There’s much less competition for and interest in commercial space.”
Beane insists his efforts to save Birdbath were not selfless.
“I thought I was going to lose them,” he explained. “It was really important to me to keep a good tenant. It’s hard and expensive to rent out stores. There are a lot of empty ones because former customers are buying on Amazon. My residential tenants get packages in the mail, rather than going into a store and coming home with shopping bags. There’s a much decreased demand for retail space.”
“Maury (Birdbath’s owner) is as disturbed by all the political fuss as I am,” Beane went on, “especially since neither of us has a stake in either candidate. We both just wanted to get Birdbath over a financial hump.”
“The issue of lost business that Birdbath ran into came about from the best intentions of a special landlord,” emailed Rubin. “Even as Birdbath revenue dropped and cash started to go the wrong way, I never lost view of the underlying intentions of George Beane to preserve and restore a beautiful pre-war building. Further, once we were in financial decline, it was only due to the open-mindedness of the landlord that we could devise a plan to get through this together.
“That’s as good as it gets for a retail tenant, and I’m lucky to have a landlord engage like a partner.”