Town-gown fight in its final days

Northampton cafe owners, deep in debt, to shut down

Casey Osburn takes an order in front of a mural entitled “The Last Staff Supper,’’ by Jeff Mack. (Photos By Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)

 

By Aubin Tyler

Globe Correspondent / February 6, 2010

NORTHAMPTON - The Green Street Cafe is dishing out its last servings of braised pork belly, crispy roast duck leg confit, and other comfort food that has made this homey bistro a foodie favorite over two decades.

The restaurant’s owners have decided to close after a long, messy battle with the area giant, Smith College, their longtime neighbor and landlord since 2007. Smith began building a $73 million engineering school next door and offered to relocate the restaurant during construction. The owners were unable to find an accommodating space and eventually became squatters while the construction around them became so “ruinous’’ to their business that they fell deeply into debt, said co-owner John Sielski.

He and co-owner Jim Dozmati were facing a court hearing next week on an eviction notice that Smith had served them. But they’ve instead decided to leave, are negotiating a settlement with the school, and plan to close the cafe sometime after Valentine’s Day.

“We hung on because, well, at the beginning, everyone said, ‘They can’t do this to you,’ ’’ Sielski said. “But I’m so tired. I guess we’ll do it somewhere else. You build up a reputation for nourishing [people] and they look down at their feet when they walk by.’’

The 90-seat Green Street Cafe is one of those friendly but special eateries that foodies appreciate in their neighborhood. On any given night, you can find patrons clinking wine glasses in front of a crackling fireplace. Its eggplant sandwich with goat cheese, aioli, and roasted red pepper drew praise from Smith alum Julia Child when she ate lunch there once, and its food has rated mentions in national food and travel magazines.

“This is one of the local businesses that makes Northampton the outstanding place it is,’’ said Michael Bardsley, a former city councilor who has tried to help Sielski and Dozmati. “It’s not a generic business. It’s one of those interesting, special places.’’

Housed on a side street bordering the Smith campus, the restaurant enjoyed a good relationship with Smith since its opening in 1991. The college would often book the restaurant for dinners for visiting lecturers and search committees.

About five years ago, Smith said it was moving forward on plans to build the engineering school, Ford Hall, next door, and Sielski and Dozmati reluctantly looked at other locations, even getting a contractor to quote the cost of building one. Sielski said the money Smith offered them for relocation fell far short of what the costs would have been.

Relations between the two sides worsened in 2007 when Smith took ownership of the restaurant building and construction on Ford Hall was scheduled to start. The city shut the restaurant for fire code violations, although Sielski and Smith dispute their severity.

Sielski said they couldn’t reopen the restaurant because of the noise and dust from the neighboring construction. During this closure, Smith offered the cafe $50,000 in compensation along with a new lease until 2012. Sielski and his partner signed the agreement and took the cash. About $15,000 of it went to pay lawyers.

With the help of friends and patrons who chipped in by prepaying for meals, the restaurant reopened in October 2007. But the dispute elevated in March 2009 when Smith shut the restaurant’s rear parking lot during construction. The cafe sought an injunction to stop the work and sued the college for damages. A judge denied the injunction.

The cafe owners stopped paying rent, and Smith countered with an eviction notice in June. “We stopped paying our rent in April when they took away our ability to pay it,’’ Sielski said. “In graduation week alone we lost $6,000 in sales.’’

Last July, a friend of the cafe and Smith alum, Jan Carhart, offered to pay the outstanding rent. Smith declined the offer. Then in the fall the city intervened to see if it could help the cafe. Northampton’s community and economic development director spoke to a Smith College official, who responded that the college would drop the eviction suit if the cafe paid its back rent and kept up with its current rent. But by then Sielski and Dozmati were broke and unable to take Smith up on its offer.

Smith has been reluctant to comment publicly on the dispute. In an e-mail last month, media relations director Kristen Cole noted that the college had charged the restaurateurs only half their rent during construction, and nothing on the parking lot, and even so the pair did not pay. And Smith said it had determined that in addition to $21,000 in back rent, the owners owe $170,000 on tax liens.

“Given the cafe’s debt load and record of delinquency,’’ Cole said, “it seems unlikely that a settlement would be negotiated.’’

Sielski said that he and Dozmati are working to repay the federal and state taxes, which he blamed on lost sales from the construction period.

With a closing looming, the restaurant’s lawyer, Tom Carhart, said he is engaged in tentative settlement negotiations with Smith, but could not disclose details. Smith College officials declined to comment on the matter until a final resolution is reached.

“It’s a sad situation,’’ said Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins. “We’ve had lots of restaurants come and go. It’s hard when a business is struggling, but this is fundamentally a landlord-tenant dispute. They run a great restaurant. It’s a loss.’’

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