Depending on who you ask, either the greed of a landlord or issues with management is responsible for the closing of Columbia Cottage, the Chinese restaurant on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 111th Street, at the end of this month after 22 years in Morningside Heights.
For the restaurant's staff, the closure symbolizes the end of a long relationship with Morningside Heights residents and the bitter conclusion of a legal battle over lease agreements with their landlord, James Goldstick. For other nearby businesses, the closure represents the neighborhood's continuing transition as rents increase.
Susan Yii, Columbia Cottage's manager for the last 18 years, said that the restaurant's closing is largely due to rising rent prices and Goldstick's increasingly uncompromising and hostile tactics.
Goldstick, meanwhile, attributed the closing of the neighborhood mainstay to the management's failure to comply with their lease agreement.
The restaurant's lease on the property expires in April 2015, but Yii said that Columbia Cottage was the victim of callous business plans to resell the property at a higher price before that date. In November 2012, Goldstick served the management a five-day notice, documenting allegations concerning building permits, use of the sidewalk for parking bicycles, plumbing issues, and other problems.
Yii said she responded to the notice, explaining that management would hire a plumber to correct the plumbing issues, but argued that the other claims were unfounded.
The matter escalated in early 2013 when Goldstick served the management with an eviction notice, citing violations regarding food preparation in the basement. Yii claimed that the staff simply stored the food in the freezer in the basement, and that no food preparation took place there.
After Goldstick filed a lawsuit, Columbia Cottage's management eventually settled with Goldstick with a stipulation that the restaurant could only remain open for five more months.
For Yii, the eviction notice was the conclusion of a difficult and often antagonistic relationship with Goldstick.
“I just comply with him. Whatever he said, I did. I tried to make him happy,” Yii said. “In the end, he went to the basement and said that we prepared the food down there—that we were cooking. I said No, we don't do it like that.'”
“These two years, I spent a lot of money correcting all the things,” Yii said. “Why did you wait after 20 years to tell me all this? It's all about kicking us out.”
Goldstick countered that he had a “decent relationship” with the restaurant and that the decision to leave was the management's own choice.
“They wanted to move and that's the end of it,” Goldstick said. “The rent had nothing to do with it.”
Goldstick added that the management was not adhering to the safety regulations stipulated in the lease agreement.
“It's my job to make sure the tenant complies with the terms of the lease. If they can't do what the lease asks them to do, then they either have to fix it or they have to move. These tenants decided to move,” he said.
Goldstick said he is in the middle of negotiations with the new establishment that will replace Columbia Cottage, and that he hopes Yii and the management find another location for the restaurant.
“I wish them nothing but the best,” he said.
Philip Binioris, the owner of the Hungarian Pastry Shop next door, said that the closing of Columbia Cottage reflects the changing landscape for businesses in the neighborhood. Because of the rise in property values, more and more businesses in the neighborhood are being forced to close their doors, Binioris said.
“As real estate prices go up, it's not hard to tell if you just look at the history of the neighborhood that most of the businesses that populated this area in the '80s and '90s were able to maintain business for 20-plus years,” Binoris said. “As their leases have come up for renewal, in this last decade, most of them have had to close.”
Though Hungarian and Columbia Cottage share the same landlord, Binioris said that he's currently only three years into a 10-year lease.
Binioris added that new businesses in the area are increasingly more corporate and less locally owned.
“That should give you an idea of their commitment to this neighborhood as a community—owners who in many cases don't visit the neighborhood, not even to see the opening of their own business,” Binioris said. “It really kind of forces you to consider what exactly defines a neighborhood at this point.”
The staff and customers of Columbia Cottage said that they are sad to see it close after so many years in the neighborhood. Yii announced that the restaurant will be hosting a “last meal” for customers on Feb. 26 as a final goodbye to all its patrons.
Linda Chong, a waitress at the restaurant for the past 20 years, said that many customers have talked to her about the closing.
“A lot of customers can't let this place go. They've gotten used to us being here,” Chong said in Mandarin.
Chong also said she doesn't know where she will work after the restaurant closes. Columbia Cottage currently employs about 20 people, all of whom will have to find new jobs at the end of the month, Yii said.
Frank Gonzalez, a resident of the Echo Apartments around the corner, said that he was a frequent customer of Columbia Cottage for the past 10 years.
“I'm going to miss this place. I could come here and get credit, you know? I don't know if the other people will give me credit. If I come here, and I'm 10 dollars or five dollars short, then they say, Oh, just bring it in tomorrow. We know who you are. You're not running away anywhere,'” he said.
“I have an established relationship with them. I don't know what's going to happen with the new people,” Gonzalez added.
“I'm going to miss them as neighbors, as friends, and as a place to eat,” Binioris said.
Channing Prend contributed reporting.
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