After enduring back-to-back defeats in court, embattled restaurateur Toney Edwards remains as “determined as ever,” he said, to protect his hallowed Hell’s Kitchen cookery, Le Madeleine, from a developer’s wrecking ball.
But if that doesn’t work out, the stick-to-it-ive Texas-born owner of the longstanding French-style bistro on West 43rd Street might have to settle for Plan B.
Despite collecting more than 12,000 signatures in support of Le Madeleine staying put—including those of such prominent politicians as City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Congressman Jerrold Nadler—the formerly relocation-reluctant Mr. Edwards is now actively seeking a fallback address.
“I am looking for other locations,” he recently informed Counter Espionage.
The change typifies a significant shift in strategy for the self-described poster child of all the bad stuff that’s happening to old-line neighborhood restaurants across Manhattan. Mr. Edwards also recently replaced his local petition-drive-specialist public-relations team with a national crisis-communications manager.
“We’ve stopped actually doing any petitions, except online, because all of the elected officials are on our side and are very supportive, as is the neighborhood,” Mr. Edwards said.
Now if only he could sway a judge or two.
Sporting a navy blazer with a silk handkerchief, a striped button-up shirt and a black turtleneck, Mr. Edwards mingled merrily, per custom, among family, friends and guests at the restaurant on Monday night, in spite of the possible doom facing his annual $3.2 million food-and-beverage operation.
Any day now, he expects to find out whether the State Court of Appeals will agree to hear his last-ditch plea against landlord Mark Scharfman, who’s been trying to terminate Le Madeleine’s lease since July 2005.
If Mr. Edwards’ appeal is granted, the continuing proceedings would prolong the restaurant’s current streak of staying in business a full 12 months (and counting) past its originally scheduled cutoff date.
If his request gets rejected, however, the court-ordered stay of eviction that’s kept Mr. Edwards’ award-winning wine selection flowing throughout the long legal tussle would expire in short order.
And then, barring any unforeseen breakthrough in landlord-tenant negotiations, the bulldozers would come. And, shortly thereafter, the condos (of course).
According to Mr. Edwards’ own lawyers, the odds of further forestalling the single-story, lime-painted brick building’s intended destruction on appeal are not exactly favorable, to say the least. “I’ve been given a 2 to 3 percent chance of getting an appeal,” Mr. Edwards said, adding: “Hopefully, there are other legal avenues we can take.”
Even the restaurant’s resident guitarist, Gene Bertoncini, whose classical strumming has provided the soundtrack for a multitude of nighttime meals at Le Madeleine over the past 15 years, seemed resigned to blisterless Sunday and Monday nights off in the very near future.
Mr. Bertoncini offered a simple two-word explanation for his bleak outlook on the business’ future: “Demolition clause.”
The building’s owner, Mr. Scharfman, and his attorney, Steven D. Sidrane, have long maintained that Mr. Scharfman was fully entitled to evict the eatery “[a]t any time that Landlord intends to demolish or to substantially remodel or rehabilitate the Building,” citing a specific section in the lease that states, well, exactly that.
Mr. Edwards, however, has challenged that seemingly straightforward provision, based on a couple of arguments.
As Counter Espionage previously reported, one point of contention remains the restaurant’s labyrinthine basement, which is actually located under the protected old-law tenement building next-door to the restaurant. Mr. Edwards’ attorneys have argued that, since Le Madeleine’s lease includes both addresses and refers to them singularly as “the Building,” the landlord would need to treat both properties equally in order to invoke the right to raze.
The eatery’s legal team has further alleged that Mr. Scharfman’s plan to erect a new multi-story residential building in Le Madeleine’s place—right up against the historic structure next-door—would likely diminish light and emergency exits for existing tenants, in apparent violation of the city’s building code. (A number of politicos, including Ms. Quinn and Mr. Nadler, have urged the Buildings Department in writing to make sure that Mr. Scharfman’s plans receive an appropriate level of scrutiny.)
To lend extra credibility to these complaints—and perhaps come off less like the usual angry tenant—Mr. Edwards hired a renowned landlord lawyer, Jeffrey R. Metz, senior partner in the largely property-owner-centric law firm Borah, Goldstein, Altschuler, Schwartz & Nahins, to argue his case.
Yet all the legalese, crafty strategy and politicking have been for naught.
So far, no judge can seem to look past that whole landlord’s-right-to-demolish section in the lease.
Last July, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Faviola Soto ruled simply that “the landlord has exercised its rights.” More recently, on Jan. 11, a panel of five Appellate Division justices unanimously agreed that Mr. Scharfman “possessed the absolute right to terminate the [restaurant’s] lease.”
The overwhelming landlord-leaning sentiment behind the bench thus far has made Mr. Edwards’ final appeal look like quite a long shot.
“When the appellate court is unanimous in agreeing with the lower court, the appeals court generally isn’t gonna take it,” he said.
If nothing else, Mr. Edwards’ recent misadventures in litigation at least seemed to provide an important civics lesson.
“Politicians can’t influence the court, evidently,” he noted. “Even if Christine Quinn and [State Senator] Tom Duane want to get something done through the courts, it’s not their court. It’s the court set up by [former Governor George] Pataki 10 years ago, when he appointed everybody.”