Wednesday, October 15, 2008

After Dispute, Floridita Owner Resumes Negotiations

After Dispute, Floridita Owner Resumes Negotiations
By Maggie Astor

After months of tumultuous back-and-forth between the owner of Floridita Restaurant and Tapas Bar and Columbia real estate officials, negotiations resumed on Monday regarding the business’ relocation to an area outside the Manhattanville expansion zone.

The reopening of negotiations marks the end of a dispute between Ramon Diaz and the University, which culminated last April when discussion was suspended after Columbia, the building’s owner, alleged that Diaz owed outstanding payments on rent, real estate tax, and water charges.

Spanning three storefronts along Broadway between 125th and 129th streets, Floridita is located in the heart of the expansion zone in which Columbia plans to build its Manhattanville campus.
According to Diaz, Columbia officials acknowledged at the Monday meeting that he had been billed incorrectly for thousands of dollars. Diaz had contested the validity of the charges on the grounds that the water meter in his building was providing inconsistent measurements.

University spokeswoman Victoria Benitez said that the University does not comment on ongoing negotiations.

Last spring, the University insisted that Diaz was missing tens of thousands of dollars in rent. In response, Diaz sent Phil Silverman, Columbia’s vice president of real estate, copies of cancelled checks for each rent and real estate tax payment he had made since assuming ownership of Floridita in 2006. At the time, Silverman and University spokeswoman La-Verna Fountain maintained that all the checks Diaz provided had been accounted for, and that Diaz still owed the initial balance. The University subsequently cut off negotiations, Diaz reported.

At the conference Monday, the officials “didn’t admit the water meters were defective, but they did acquiesce to the discount that I thought was appropriate based on what I thought the meters were misreading,” Diaz said. “We negotiated the open amount to a figure that they were comfortable with and I was comfortable with, and the water is now current.”

The University had first said that Diaz owed $32,000 in water charges. After Monday’s discussion, the final amount was set at $20,000, which Diaz said he paid at the meeting.
“We needed to get those issues off the table, and therefore they made concessions to get them off the table,” Diaz said.

The future of the tapas bar was a major point of conflict this year between Diaz and University officials. Floridita, whose tapas bar is separate from the restaurant, works on two leases. While the lease on the restaurant is good until 2015, Diaz has to renew his tapas bar lease annually. Fearing that the University would terminate the latter, Diaz went so far as to prepare a lawsuit with his attorney.

But after Monday’s meeting, Diaz said, a new lease has been signed and “the lawsuit—even the potential for the lawsuit—is off the table.”

If everything goes according to plan, Floridita will move to another location within the expansion zone, an agreement to be reached mutually by Diaz and Columbia real estate officials. According to Diaz, Phil Silverman said no space was currently available. In all likelihood, Diaz will eventually relocate to a building that still has not been constructed.

In the meantime, he will remain in his current location. Silverman also promised to work to resolve the problem of reduced business, Diaz said, which came about due to construction outside the eatery.

“They have agreed to begin negotiations to start working with me insofar as how the construction is affecting my business,” Diaz said. “He [Silverman] did mention that if the construction ... starts hurting you, we will help you in any way, shape, or form we can to offset losses and business being affected in a negative way.”

Diaz has recently complained to Columbia and to city officials about the setup of barriers and the closing of a lane on Broadway, which resulted in eight traffic accidents outside Floridita in a month. In reaction to Diaz’s reports, the barriers were taken down and new traffic signals installed. He said that no more accidents have occurred since those modifications were made.

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