Battle Brews Over Proposed Mexican Restaurant in Tribeca

The 39 North Moore entrance on left serves the commercial space. Residential entrance is on the right.

Feb. 13, 2013

Plans for a Mexican restaurant at 39 North Moore Street are stirring the ire of upstairs condo owners and sending shockwaves through nearby multi-million-dollar lofts.

Representatives of the restaurant, seeking advisory approval for a liquor license, called off their Feb. 11 appearance before Community Board 1 after a flurry of protest letters and petition signatures arrived at the board office.

"It's a tiny landing. There's no concrete between floors. The people standing outside. The smoking. And there's no venting in the back," sixth-floor resident Joy Toboroff said in a telephone interview, ticking off a partial list of objections.

Form letters to CB1 from other buildings noted that the restaurant would add to "three late-night drinking establishments on the block" as well as others within 500 feet that "bring late night noise and street traffic from others from outside the neighborhood."

Santiago Perez, a partner in the project, said he delayed his date with the community board in order meet with the residents first.

"We decided to sit with them one by one and try to address in the best possible way each of their concerns," Perez said in a telephone interview, adding that he has been working with a specialized contractor to handle noise, garbage, venting and other issues that could be a problem for the neighbors.

Perez described the restaurant concept, with 60 seats and a 10-stool bar, as a "high-end Mexican restaurant, not a bar." Acclaimed chef Enrique Olvera, whose Mexico City restaurant Pujol was called one of the 50 best restaurants in the world by San Pellegrino, will be at the restaurant for two months before and two months after the restaurant opens, and return there for a week each month, according to Perez.

"The first thing that comes to mind when a neighbor hears about Mexican restaurants is margaritas, tequila shots, etc.," Perez said. "So I think it's very important to highlight the type of restaurant we're trying to do, to move away from that misconception." 

(A “preliminary” menu provided by Perez shows such dishes as duck in black mole with banana plume and corn flavored rice; ajochile sea bass with tender tamal and fresh purlsane; and Yucatecan pork confit with almond, raisins and cumin mole. Prices range from $22 to $42.)

But neighbors say that no restaurant belongs in that space, no matter what it is or how high end.

"We are against a restaurant on the ground floor," the condo's president, Bettina Blohm, said flatly in an email to the Trib.

Blohm and other residents claim that Stephen Corelli, the owner of the space and the Tribeca-based architect who developed both 39 and 41 North Moore, was trying to rent the space without first telling the board. They said they only learned of the pending liquor license application at CB1 from the blog Tribeca Citizen.

"We are a small building and as Board president I have always put great importance in transparency and openness," wrote Blohm, who was out of the country this week. "I would like to stress that Stephen did NOT inform us of his potential new tenant until he was forced to do so."

According to Corelli, the restaurant developers had “jumped the gun” in their plans to go to the community board. And, in any case, he said, “I don’t have any obligation to inform them.”

“I’m not trying to sneak anything by them. As a courtesy I contacted them and asked them if they wanted to meet with me to answer any of their questions and potentially address any of their concerns,” Corelli said.  “They didn't want to meet with me. They didn't care. They just didn't want a restaurant.”

(An unexpected concern last weekend was a wide-spread rumor, started in emails among residents. Lindsay Lohan, the story went, had visited Cristina Dos Santos, the store now in the space, and checked out “where she would put a bar and dj booth,” according to the email. In response, Perez told the Trib that Lohan is a “friend of a friend” but “I can reassure you that she's not connected in any way whatsoever. Not at all.”)

Corelli and his storefront at 39 North Moore Street are no strangers to controversy. In November 1995, a battle broke out over another newly acquired tenant, a dry cleaner. It would not be long before Corelli, who then lived on the building's second floor, changed his mind over the wisdom of his choice and, like other residents, viewed the tenant as a potential health hazard. Demonstrations and a court battle ensued, the cleaner's business floundered, and 19 months after opening, it was gone.

Neighbors now hope it does not get that far with the current prospective restaurant, and at an emergency meeting recently, the board of 39 North Moore Street voted to sue, if necessary, to stop it.

Perez, however, remains undaunted, and determined to change their minds.

“We really want to emphasize our interest in making this a restaurant that adds value to the neighborhood,” he said, “rather than destroying the quality of life.”