Clip: With Negotiations Stalled, Clock Ticks Down for CBGB in Rent Dispute
With Negotiations Stalled, Clock Ticks Down for CBGB in Rent Dispute
By BEN SISARIO
Published: August 1, 2005
Hilly Kristal was feeling optimistic.
Though CBGB, the landmark Bowery rock club he founded in 1973, is embroiled
in a legal dispute with its landlord and faces eviction at the end of the
month when its lease expires, there were signs, Mr. Kristal said, that an
agreement would be reached soon.
"I think it's going to be settled amicably," he said by phone last week
from his office at the club, where, at 73, he still arrives early each
morning and answers the phone with a quick, cordial "CB's."
But as Mr. Kristal discussed the situation, his attitude changed. He said
he was certain that his landlord - the nonprofit Bowery Residents'
Committee, which aids about 8,000 homeless people each year - "wants me
out," and he soured on the prospects of a new lease.
Then he excused himself to go to a meeting where, Mr. Kristal said, he
would discuss moving the club to Las Vegas.
"If New York doesn't want me," he said, "then I'll try to do something
else. There are people out there who do want me."
With 31 days left in its lease, CBGB's future remains uncertain, and though
a motley group of celebrities, public relations specialists and punk
activists have worked steadily in recent weeks to help the club negotiate
with its landlord, no agreement has been reached, and stomachs have
tightened all around.
Today, Steven Van Zandt, of the E Street Band and "The Sopranos," who has
been leading the celebrity volunteer effort to save the club, is to
announce an Aug. 31 rally, planned for Washington Square Park. Depending on
the success of a proposal that Mr. Van Zandt's team has submitted to the
committee on behalf of the club, the rally could be CBGB's last hurrah or
the start of its new life.
"This is the last rock 'n' roll symbol left," Mr. Van Zandt said. "We have
seen one iconic rock 'n' roll venue after the other disappear, and we
finally said, 'Let's draw a line here, and save at least one.' "
If CBGB closes, it will join a number of downtown clubs that have shut down
in the last several years. This year Fez and the Luna Lounge have closed
because of development, and last year the Bottom Line was shut over a debt
of more than $185,000 to its landlord, New York University.
Four years ago the Bowery Residents' Committee sued CBGB for about $300,000
in unpaid rent, which the club has been paying back, both sides say. But
early this year the landlord, which has a 45-year lease on the building and
subleases the ground floor spaces and basements of 315 and 313 Bowery to
the club, found that CBGB owed an additional $75,000 because it had not
been paying the scheduled increases in its monthly rent, and the case
landed back in court.
Mr. Kristal has said he did not pay the increases because he was never
billed for them. The case has been in Manhattan Civil Court since February;
Judge Joan M. Kenney has not yet ruled. But the committee has listed the
property for September occupancy at a rate that would more than double the
current rent of $19,000 a month.
For Muzzy Rosenblatt, the executive director of the Bowery Residents'
Committee, the matter is simple: CBGB has a debt and it must be paid.
"I don't understand why," he said, "if they admit they owe it, they want to
withhold money that goes to help homeless people."
He estimated that the dispute, between the lost rent and the legal expenses
over it as well as a flurry of building violations, has cost the
organization about $200,000, which "would put enough outreach workers out
on the street to help 100 homeless people every day."
The organization has an annual budget of about $32 million, mostly from
government sources and Medicaid; in its 18 locations around the city, CBGB
is its only commercial tenant. (An arts reporter for The Times, Julie
Salamon, is the committee's chairwoman.)
Relations between Mr. Kristal and Mr. Rosenblatt, never warm, froze over
completely this spring, when the committee withdrew from settlement
discussions. Then a series of celebrities and assorted fans and
businesspeople, concerned for the club's future, tried to help restart
Among the first were the singer David Byrne and the filmmaker Jonathan
Demme, who hoped to arrange a meeting with both sides but found them
"We said, 'Can we sit down and maybe both sides can compromise a bit,' "
Mr. Byrne recalled. "Both sides seemed to be open to that idea, but then
some of them decided that they weren't open anymore, that they would take
their chances with the courts."
In June, Mr. Van Zandt said, he was recruited by a panicked Mr. Kristal to
negotiate with Mr. Rosenblatt. Mr. Van Zandt, who organized Artists United
Against Apartheid in the mid-1980's and was active in environmental and
Native American campaigns, assembled a team.
After an initial meeting with Mr. Rosenblatt on June 20, Mr. Van Zandt and
his team began to put together a proposal that would meet Mr. Rosenblatt's
demands. A new lease would have a third-party guarantor and any outstanding
building violations would be addressed. A foundation would be set up to
contribute $100,000 a year to the Bowery Residents' Committee, raised in
benefit concerts. A new lease, for 15 years, would include a modest rent
The proposal was delivered to the organization last month, but Mr. Van
Zandt said he had not received an answer and had had difficulty
communicating with Mr. Rosenblatt and his staff. On Thursday evening, with
a half-dozen associates gathered around him, Mr. Van Zandt sounded
"I feel bad about this," he said. "I wish I could have done more."
But Mr. Rosenblatt said he had not yet made a decision on the proposal, and
said he was considering it carefully.
Among his biggest concerns, he said, are a number of building violation
notices the club received in October 2003, during inspections that followed
a fire that killed 100 people at a Rhode Island club. The violations
included lack of certification for flame retardant curtains and an aisle by
the stage that was found to be too narrow.
Mr. Kristal and his representatives are adamant that the most serious
faults were corrected immediately and that they are working to correct the
remaining violations. Mr. Rosenblatt said too many were still outstanding.
The committee houses 175 people in the floors above the club; hundreds more
pass through a second-floor "drop in center" - where they can rest and
receive basic care - that is directly above the CBGB stage.
Mr. Rosenblatt, who said his first date with the woman who became his wife
was to a concert at CBGB, said he believed an agreement could still be
"We believe," he said, "that people can change."