Gradually, the letters have begun to accumulate in Robert Tierney’s Lower Manhattan office. They all implore the same thing: landmark status for the Rainbow Room in 30 Rockefeller Center.
The first letter to Mr. Tierney, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, came in September from Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, a union with Rainbow Room employees that has strong connections to elected officials. Then came a letter from Richard Parsons, the Time Warner chairman, who wrote there was “no more romantic space than the Rainbow Room” in New York. Then the Historic Districts Council sent a letter of approval; a similar letter from the Municipal Art Society is forthcoming; and on Tuesday night, Manhattan’s Community Board 5 was expected to take up the issue.
The sudden stream of support is no coincidence. Behind the push is the Cipriani family, led by Arrigo Cipriani and his son Giuseppe, the upscale restaurateurs who have run the famed Art Deco restaurant and banquet hall since 1999. In August, the Ciprianis—operators of four local upscale banquet halls and convicted of state tax evasion last year—petitioned the LPC to grant the Rainbow Room landmark status.
Now the family is leaning on elected officials, business executives and other big names to back its application.
The uncommon move is a not-so-subtle jab at the Rainbow Room’s landlord, Tishman Speyer, the powerful and politically connected real estate firm led by Jerry and Rob Speyer. As interior landmark designation would restrict changes or alterations to the restaurant and banquet hall, it would likely weaken the Speyers’ hand in future lease negotiations with Cipriani or any other potential tenant. It would also effectively guarantee that the Rainbow Room, or something very similar, remain the space’s use in perpetuity.
Tishman Speyer has not yet taken a position on the landmarking, though landlords typically resist such moves, as they can curb their ability to charge higher rents. Further, the Speyers and Ciprianis have been engaged in a series of spats over the Rainbow Room, as the restaurateurs have filed multiple lawsuits and the rents in the existing lease are currently being determined via arbitration.
In making the rounds for support of the landmarking, representatives of the Cipriani family have said the impetus is twofold. First, the representatives say, the Cipriani family values landmarks and wants to see the Rainbow Room’s historic look protected, like that of most of the family’s other city venues.
Second, and probably more relevant, Cipriani’s lease expires in 2013, and the family says it is worried that Tishman Speyer will try to convert the 56,000-square-foot venue to office space, which could potentially be rented at higher rates.
Kevin Finnegan, a Cipriani attorney, said that the office-space conversion was indeed a worry, but denied that financials were the major impetus behind the company’s desire to landmark the venue.
“I’d hate to have anyone get the sense that this is a primary motivation of the Ciprianis,” Mr. Finnegan said. “They pay a premium for space—they are in wonderful spaces all over the city. … They would be under constraints just like a landlord would be in terms of changes or alterations, so it’s a mixed bag in terms of the economics.”
The legitimacy of the Ciprianis’ office space-conversion fear is unclear. Tishman Speyer has denied such a move is under consideration, and preservationists and others contacted by Cipriani expressed skepticism about the concept.
WHATEVER THEIR REASON, the Ciprianis’ public stance so far makes clear that they want to position themselves to renew their lease in 2013—the firm addressed the lease expiration and potential office space-conversion issue in its application to the LPC—and to renew on favorable terms. Landmark status for the Rainbow Room, which could apply to items like furniture and lighting fixtures depending on the terms of a designation, has the potential to both decrease the market value of the space and deter potential tenants who would want to make alterations.