For Florent, Au Revoir?

Florent Morellet, a founder of the group whose efforts led to the 2003 designation of the Gansevoort Market Historic District, has been operating the restaurant bearing his name in the district's heart for the past 23 years.

But while historic district designation protects buildings, it does not necessarily preserve the businesses inside those buildings.

Lease dispute, encroaching gentrification threaten Gansevoort icon.

And the survival of Florent, the 24-hour restaurant at 69 Gansevoort Street where meatpackers, clubgoers, shoppers, and neighbors meet to eat at their appointed hours, is threatened.

The restaurant's demise would be a big loss of a thriving neighborhood pioneer and of a colorful neighborhood icon. Florent, 54, a native of France, holds court as Marie Antoinette for a block-long Bastille Day celebration on July 14 outside the restaurant and hosts a gala Gay Pride celebration there in June.

But his lease on the two-story building expires on March 31 and his formerly sweet relationship with his landlord has soured, while the district that used to be dominated by meat wholesalers, sex workers, many of them transgendered, and louche nightspots has become nearly genteel as high-end shops, restaurants, and upscale lounges have taken over.

Three years ago, Morellet asked his landlord, Joanne Lucas, to extend his lease beyond the March 31, 2008, term. He offered to pay $18,000 per month, three times the present rent.

“But it wasn't enough,” Morellet recalled. “Real estate owners would consider me a good tenant. I take care of the building – she's not here, she lives in Massachusetts – I've been paying rent, sometimes early when she asked for it, to the same family for 23 years,” he said, recalling that he first signed a lease with Lucas's grandfather.

Real estate sources say the property is already on the market and prospective buyers have been offered the building. One real estate firm has pitched a deal for 69 Gansevoort St. for $350 per square foot annually for the 1,500-square-foot ground floor and $100 per square foot for the 800-square-foot second floor.

“That's about $43,000 a month instead of about $6,000 that I pay now,” said Morellet. “I could handle $18,000 a month, but not that,” he said.

The situation got stickier last August when Morellet told Lucas that he discovered that she had neglected to file for a tax certiorari that would have significantly reduced the property tax bill he has been paying for many years.

“All real estate owners do it as a matter of course and it's in the lease,” he said. To make matters worse, Morellet has been paying all of the real estate tax, instead of two-thirds as called for in the lease. “We can only go back six years and it comes to a lot of money,” he said, but he declined to say how much.

“She got insulted,” Morellet said. “She said it was my fault that I didn't discover the error before, and said she wouldn't renew my lease. So we stopped paying rent on September 1. It was the only way that I could collect,” he added.

In November, the landlord brought an eviction suit for nonpayment of rent and Morellet filed a countersuit for the real estate tax claim.

On February 5, the cases went before Judge Matthew Cooper, who said he would hand down a written decision on the tax dispute, but specified no date.

Would Morellet, who has been an ardent advocate for gay rights, fighting AIDS, and the right to die with dignity, open another restaurant if he lost the fight?

“No, not now,” he said. The business is unique and connected to the neighborhood, he said.

Morellet, born near Nantes, France, studied urban planning in London, spent a year in San Francisco where he got his first taste of the restaurant business, and then went to Paris where he opened a restaurant.

“It was a social success but a financial debacle – I was 22 years old,” he said of the Paris venture. Morellet came to the Village in April 1978 and managed a SoHo restaurant, La Gamelle. He opened Florent in 1985 in the two-story building where R & L Restaurant – whose sign, never lit, spans the front of the second floor – had been located since the 1930s.

“We know the place was raided as a speakeasy around 1929, and R & L was here during the Depression when it was a three-story building with tenement apartments on the third floor,” Morellet said.

Around 1949, when the city began creating the meat wholesale market in the area west of Ninth Avenue between Horatio and West 14th Streets, the owners removed the third floor.

“All great things have to end,” said Morellet, looking to an uncertain future after a fabulous 23 years. “I'm ready for a new phase in my life. I'm excited about it, but part of me is sad.

“I think I'll still be open after March 31. I hope at least for Gay Pride on June 29 – and maybe another Marie Antoinette.

“I might get a reprieve if there's a recession and the real estate bubble bursts. It could begin to look like it did when I opened,” he said.