City Winery Sues Trinity Church Over $2 Million 'Induced' Construction

Michael Dorf in The Loft, a 150-seat performance space completed last year as part of a $2.3 million renovation of City Winery's second floor. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

Mar. 04, 2019

“We just built this whole floor. All coming down.”   

Michael Dorf was showing a reporter the newly built-out second floor of his wine-centric music venue City Winery, at 155 Varick St. It’s $2.3 million worth of construction—10,000 square feet of offices, private dining, and a 150-seat performance space that was completed last July. And it’s an investment Dorf insists he would not have made if he’d known the place would be forced to close a year later. Nor would he have prepared to build a roof deck, he said, pointing out new stairs leading to nowhere, and a closet that was to become the shaft for an elevator to the roof.

“We actually bought an elevator we can’t use,” he said.

Dorf, City Winery’s founder and CEO, maintains that his former landlord, Trinity Church, “induced him to make the improvements as an upgrade to its building and an added amenity to the Hudson Square neighborhood.

City Winery wants to recoup what it claims is a $2 million loss, and it is suing Trinity Church to get it.

A few months before the work was completed, and after negotiating a five-year lease extension, according to court papers, City Winery learned that its building was part of a Trinity-owned parcel to be sold, and demolished. In a $650-million deal, Disney, now City Winery’s landlord, took a 99-year lease on the property, where it plans to develop a million-square-foot office complex known as 4 Hudson Square.

“I’m not stupid. I wouldn’t have made a $2 million investment to do all this if I was told you’re only going to have twelve months,” said Dorf, 56, whose previous music venue, the former Knitting Factory on Leonard Street, was a Tribeca institution for many years. “I wouldn’t have done it.”

Dorf acknowledges that his lease contained a 12-month demolition clause, but maintains in the lawsuit that he was assured by Trinity’s director of real estate operations, John Franqui, that the church would not exercise the clause for three to five years, enough time for City Winery, through an adjusted rent arrangement, to recoup its investment. Oral and email assurances from Franqui back him up, he said.

“We have what I and our lawyers think is substantial to support our claim,” he said.

Trinity says otherwise. “We believe the lawsuit is entirely without merit,” a spokesperson said in a statement, declining to elaborate.

City Winery, which opened in 2008, must close its doors by July 31. Dorf said he will soon announce the location of the City Winery that will replace it. According to the lawsuit, Trinity tried to move the business into one of its buildings on Greenwich Street. “Unfortunately,” the City Winery complaint maintains, “the Greenwich Street site did not work and thereafter Trinity ceased communicating with City Winery despite City Winery’s consistent efforts to engage in a dialogue.