“This is the only little piece left of what downtown used to look like,” said Robert Kremer, proprietor of the Pussycat Lounge, the 34-year-old topless bar-cum–rock concert club in Manhattan’s financial district.
The longtime flesh-peddler, who’s become a historic-preservation activist, was standing outside his bar at 96 Greenwich Street along a stretch of shabby old buildings, some dating back more than two centuries, many currently occupied by adult-themed retailers, both the overt and the less obvious kind, three blocks south of the World Trade Center ruins—itself, a sort of ground zero in terms of the city’s current hotel boom.
Ravenous real-estate tycoon and lodging monger Sam Chang, the deep-pocketed developer behind some 20 new hotel projects now under way in Manhattan and Brooklyn, has at least three hotels planned for Mr. Kremer’s immediate neighborhood alone.
The forthcoming hotels essentially have Mr. Kremer’s Pussycat Lounge surrounded: a 300-room hotel next-door on Greenwich Street; a 350-room hotel directly behind it on Washington Street; and a 186-room hotel just up Rector Street on Trinity Place. Not that Mr. Chang necessarily needs to surround the lounge—he bought its building in 2005.
The hotelier’s ambitious plot would do more than merely provide 800-plus brand-spankin’-new overnight suites for Wall Street–area business and leisure travelers. It would also cleanse the block of many seedy Old New York charms, such as Thunder Lingerie’s alluring peep-show booths, as well as Mr. Kremer’s precious nightclub, which Mr. Chang intends to demolish to make a driveway—a proposal the bar owner continues to fight on several fronts.
IN ADDITION TO SUING MR. CHANG in Manhattan Supreme Court, Mr. Kremer has made headlines by lobbying to have the Pussycat Lounge designated as an official city landmark—not as the Pussycat Lounge, per se, but rather the “Augustus Hicks Lawrence House,” named in honor of the Wall Street financier for whom the four-story brick row house was originally built back in 1799. In other prior lives, it served as a restaurant and rooming house, as well as a brothel.
“Whatever it is now, it’s still part of history,” Mr. Kremer told The Observer.
Perhaps not surprisingly, six months after his formal presentation to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Mr. Kremer is still awaiting an official response from Chairman Robert Tierney.
And waiting. And waiting. “It’s just sitting on Mr. Tierney’s desk,” charged a frustrated Mr. Kremer. (A spokesperson for the commission said the proposal remains “under review.”)
Meanwhile, the purge of adult entertainers may have already begun. This past March, police reportedly busted a purported art gallery, located in the building next door to the Pussycat Lounge, and charged the proprietor with running a brothel. The raid came a mere nine months after Mr. Chang became the gallerist’s landlord, acquiring the five-story building at 100 Greenwich Street for $15.2 million, with plans to tear it down and erect a 39-floor hotel on-site.
And, in July, an undercover TV news crew, acting on a tip, infiltrated the not-so-secret back room at neighboring Cordato’s deli, where scantily clad dancers were videotaped allegedly performing lap dances for $10 a pop.
Mr. Kremer has since publicly voiced suspicions that perhaps Mr. Chang was somehow behind the neighborhood’s erotic crackdown. “I’m sure it came from the developer,” he told New York magazine’s Grub Street blog, citing also a recent spike in regulatory inspections of businesses on the block.
Speaking to The Observer last week, Mr. Kremer softened his rhetoric: “I don’t think it was his doing,” he said of Mr. Chang personally—rather, he suspects the hotelier’s subordinates.
“I think my client has better things to do with his time than that,” said Mr. Chang’s attorney, Frederick Park. “He’s an international businessman who travels around the world constantly. He certainly wouldn’t be troubling himself or anybody in his organization to call 311 on the Pussycat Lounge.”
Whatever the cause, the net effect of replacing raunchy shows in dark back rooms with well-appointed suites and flat-screen TVs might seem like a step-up in today’s shiny, tourist-friendly Manhattan.
Then again, who is Mr. Chang—the guy behind the fast-foodishly monikered McSam Hotel Group—to talk about aesthetics?
“They don’t even use real stone!” charged Mr. Kremer, referring to Mr. Chang and company’s typical architectural modus operandi.
Consider the company’s Comfort Inn building on West 39th Street with its exterior of insulated cladding, most often referred to by the brand-name Dryvit; the cookie-cutter material might as well be a four-letter word to old-school builders like Mr. Kremer, whose own career began in construction and who personally performed many renovations to the Pussycat Lounge.
He scoffed at the notion that a similar standardized structure could soon replace the turn-of-the-century terra cotta at nearby 50 Trinity Place, where a shuttered coffee shop sits dark as Mr. Chang revs up the bulldozer.
Mr. Kremer is determined to avoid becoming the hotelier’s next retail casualty. In lieu of his monthly $8,000 rent, he has been paying his lawyers, contesting Mr. Chang’s very purchase of the historic building that houses his club—not to mention his own home. (Mr. Kremer resides on the building’s fourth floor.)
His case amounts to what one detractor dismissed in court papers as “all sorts of far-fetched theories.”
Mr. Kremer has claimed the building’s sale to Mr. Chang for $3.5 million in 2005 violated his lease by not honoring his right of first refusal. Opposing lawyers contend that: (a) the sale was legit; (b) the lease in question is fraudulent; and (c) Mr. Kremer may have even operated without one for the past 30 years, court records show.
Moreover, Mr. Kremer claims that he actually co-owned the building alongside his longtime business partner, Walter Coletti, who died the summer before George Coletti, his brother and executor of the estate, sold it. (Mr. Kremer has countered that any subterfuge with the paperwork is the brother’s doing; the brother has denied any wrongdoing.)
Opposing lawyers further allege that there’s no documentary proof of Mr. Kremer’s ownership in the property, and even the bar owner himself has admitted that no such paperwork exists. The reason his name is missing is simple: “to avoid any claims being made against Pussycat Lounge Inc.,” according to court papers.
Mr. Kremer, it turns out, has dabbled in development himself, most infamously as part of a failed attempt to build luxury condos on the Long Beach waterfront. His real estate investments tanked in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash; hence, the debt-collector-dodging maneuver with the bookkeeping.
It’s an interesting strategy: To prove he’s telling the truth now, Mr. Kremer must convince the court of his prior deception to keep creditors away from the nightclub. An accountant and an attorney familiar with the Pussycat duo’s old business dealings are lined up to testify in support of Mr. Kremer’s claims; yet Mr. Chang’s attorney said neither witness has showed up for depositions. The trial is scheduled to begin later this month.
“Whatever it takes, I will prevail,” Mr. Kremer told The Observer. “I’m a fighter.”
Indeed, the Russian émigré, who somewhat resembles the actor Bob Hoskins with a mustache, might seem a formidable opponent.
TO HEAR HIM TELL IT, the Pussycat Lounge has outlasted all sorts of rivals, including the Irish mob, which once ruled the block and regularly fired shots at the bar’s windows for withholding payoffs. (Note the bulletproof glass out front.)
The venue also outlasted the tumultuous 1990’s, when Mayor Giuliani’s administration enacted strict new regulations that, court records show, effectively wiped out nearly a quarter of the city’s adult-themed businesses. In 2002, Mr. Kremer successfully sued the city to keep his club open despite the new restrictions.
But can he survive the indomitable Sam Chang?
A friend and “communications consultant” to Mr. Kremer, Robert Malmad, suggested that perhaps the two sides could reach a compromise, in which the Pussycat Lounge is saved and even somehow incorporated into Mr. Chang’s hotel next door—a sort of lascivious version of the Waldorf-Astoria’s own Bull & Bear bar.
“Having such a landmark as part of your hotel complex kind of makes sense,” said Mr. Malmad, whose background is in advertising. “Even if it becomes just an over-priced cocktail lounge to suck in the tourists, and the girls are wearing these deep décolletage tops and bending over a lot when they’re serving drinks.”
“I don’t think that’ll ever happen,” said Mr. Chang’s attorney, Mr. Park. “Not too many people outside of Las Vegas or Reno want a strip club in a brand-new hotel. That’s not what the developers are going for here.”
With additional reporting by Alex Jacobs.