Out near the townhouse stoops on Waverly Place, between MacDougal Street and Sixth Avenue, the limousines start lining up around dinner time. It’s the Babbo crowd, descending on the neighborhood to dine at one of Zagat’s 15 hottest restaurants.
Noticeable from the rest of the block only because of the warm yellow light emanating from the front windows, it’s a seemingly modest little nightspot serving high-quality Italian cuisine. But it touched off a furor at Board 2′s June 21 meeting.
Noise, odors and those ubiquitous limos have apparently irritated the hell out of neighbors of Mario Batali’s popular little restaurant, and they came out in force to complain. Their weapon of choice: a preemptive strike to revoke Babbo’s liquor license.
Arguing loudest for the license revocation was Nuri Akgul, who lives directly next door at 108 Waverly Place. He complained of the whirring of the air-conditioning units and the fumes from the kitchen. “We have Babbo’s employees sitting on our steps,” he complained. The limos idling outside obstruct traffic. “The garbage trucks cannot get through and pick up my garbage. I get fined for that,” he said.
Brad Calcaterra, who lives on the second floor in a building directly behind the restaurant on the Washington Square Park side of the block, piled on.
“I can’t keep my window open anymore,” he said. “The fumes that come into my apartment are unbelievable.” He contended that Babbo was adding more air conditioners as the weather got hotter, and that they were becoming noisier and noisier. “It sounds like Newark Airport back there,” Mr. Calcaterra said. “And the smell is continual.”
Thomas Lynch, who also lives on Washington Place, said residents had been complaining for two years, yet Babbo had offered only empty promises to address their concerns.
Said Sylka Uhlig, another resident of the area: “We had meetings with them, and these meetings didn’t bring any clear facts.”
The restaurant, however, had its defenders. Its lawyer, Robert Ferrari, told the board that Babbo had already paid $50,000 for a new eight-foot-high sound and odor barrier that will be installed this week. “A lot of neighbors grill their food in the backyard. They contribute to the smells as well,” he said. “We’re addressing each one of our violations.”
In a letter to the board, chef-owner Mario Batali and his partner, Joseph Bastianich, wrote how they had replaced a lighting fixture and window in accordance with Landmarks Commission standards, and also quelled fears of the possible commercial use of the vacant third and fourth floors of the building. “The most likely application for those vacant floors will be a duplex apartment, to be occupied by one of the principals of Babbo L.L.C,” they wrote.
And not all neighbors have found the three-star restaurant abhorrent. Donna Atkins, of 112 Waverly Place, said, “They’re truly the perfect neighbor. Even the garbage is immaculate.” She said that the upscale clientele and limousines help keep away drug dealers and “shadier elements.” “At night, the front of the restaurant is tastefully lit, and as a single woman I feel that when I come home late at night to my apartment, that I’m standing in the glow of their lighting and I’m completely safe,” she said.
Molly Goodrich, who lives four doors down from the restaurant, also said Babbo has been a force for good. “I lived there before Babbo, when people were trying to break through my window and they wouldn’t let me extend the bars on my window, even though there were 18 inches there. Landmarks said, ‘No! Let them come in; they’re from the park! They wanna do their drugs in your apartment!’”
Then, she said, “Babbo arrived, they brought a different clientele, they brought their limousines, and I may not be able to afford to eat there but, excuse me, I am very grateful. Babbo really did clean up Waverly Place.”
But this is New York, land of enterprise. And, said Mr. Calcaterra, in a familiar refrain: “Now all the drug dealers just come over to Washington Place instead.”
Things began to get out of hand when Jack Simon, who lives on the other side of Babbo, praised the restaurant for improvements. “The odors in the back are almost nonexistent, and if they do they’re usually pleasant, and there are two other restaurants back there, so it’s hard to know where they’re coming from, but it smells pleasant, like fresh food,” he said. That got critics laughing and calling out until the board chairman, Jim Smith, took the microphone and hushed them: “No heckling! Let the man proceed!”
One more neighbor, Adam Rapoport, a senior editor at GQ, also had his say, but in writing. “Babbo, in short, has proved itself not only an invaluable addition to the neighborhood but the entire city of New York,” Mr. Rapoport wrote.
The board agreed that none of the allegations warranted a letter to the State Liquor Authority challenging Babbo’s license. But the nasty food fight may not yet be over. The meeting lacked a quorum, meaning the arguments can get reheated the next time the board meets.
Got Stuff? Make A People’s Museum!
Like many New Yorkers, April and Mark Sepanski, newsstand owners in the Lincoln Center area, have lots of stuff they’ve accumulated over the years. And like many New Yorkers, they’ve had to sock it away in a storage vault, waiting for the day when a vast expanse of space will open to them and they can put it all on display.
The Sepanskis, both 46, think that day has arrived. At the June 19 meeting of Board 11, they pitched an idea that they believe will solve their space problems-and benefit both New Yorkers in general and East Harlem in particular.
The Sepanskis are proposing the start of the People’s Museum, a display of all their collections in one space. And they want it to fill the beautiful old Georgian Revival building on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street that has housed the Museum of the City of New York.
The museum, as East Harlem residents know, is about to be moved to the old Tweed Courthouse near City Hall by 2003, by decree of Mayor Giuliani. Elected officials, especially City Councilman Philip Reed, are fighting the move, calling it a major insult-a veritable theft of cultural cachet-by the Mayor and his minions.
But one person’s loss is another person’s opportunity. And while many folks in East Harlem see the soon-to-be empty museum as proof of the city’s disrespect, the Sepanskis see it as a home.
“This would be a great addition to the Museum Mile and a great advantage to the neighborhood,” Mr. Sepanski said. “We can satisfy a whole range of cultural and educational interests for all its visitors and residents.”
The Sepanskis give new meaning to the term “pack rats”: Mr. Sepanski has amassed $3.5 million in art and artifacts over a lifetime of collecting. The collection has already been chartered by both the New York State Museum and the Board of Regents in Albany.
The couple told Board 11 that they’re working on a proposal to the city’s Economic Development Corporation to occupy the city-owned Museum Mile site.
The People’s Museum would be a “general museum,” Mr. Sepanski says, and “general” is quite an understatement: The 30,000-piece collection hits on everything from dinosaur bones and pre-Columbian artifacts to Hollywood memorabilia.
Mr. Sepanski-stout, bespectacled and bearded-clutched his black leather briefcase one scorching afternoon in a coffee shop near Lincoln Center. A self-avowed “museum fanatic,” Mr. Sepanski said he frequented nearly every museum in New York when he was growing up in Astoria; he even took Mrs. Sepanski to the Museum of Natural History on their first date. But he always felt that something was missing-a museum that would house everyone’s interests under one roof, a general museum.
The People’s Museum was Mr. Sepanski’s labor of love for decades as he meticulously pieced together his eclectic collection. He purchased some of the pieces-a Zulu headband, a dinosaur egg and a 1939 typewriter, for example-with his own money. But the bulk of the collection is composed of donations from museums and individuals. One particularly large gift from an individual comprised more than 1,000 ancient African artifacts.
Armed with a pair of Queens accents that could peel the paint off walls, the Sepanskis have been spending their days meeting with lawyers, historians and city officials in hopes of securing a home for the People’s Museum, which right now is housed in a warehouse in Long Island City. They sustain it-and themselves-with their newsstand on the corner of 66th Street and Columbus Avenue.
The Sepanskis said they are unsure of what it will take financially to occupy the Museum of the City of New York space, but they’re well prepared with fund-raising and grants should the People’s Museum have to pay rent to the city.
“We think this museum is very promising,” Mr. Sepanski said. “I think we could keep it going for 100 years, easily.”
July 10: Board 7, Goddard Riverside Community Center, 593 Columbus Avenue at 88th Street, 7 p.m., 362-4008.
July 11: Board 10, Harlem State Office Building, 163 West 125th Street, between Seventh and Lenox avenues, second floor, 6 p.m., 749-3105; Board 6, New York University, 500 First Avenue at 30th Street, Classroom A, 7 p.m., 319-3750.