DocuDrama: 5C Cultural Center Avoids Eviction, But at a Price

IMG_7699Maya Millett The 5C Cultural Center, 68 Avenue C.

Update | 10:57 a.m. This article was revised to include comments from Bruce Morris, the co-owner of 5C Cultural Center, who responded to several phone calls from The Local shortly after the story was posted.

After 17 years of bad blood, injunction orders, and noise complaints, the co-op board of 702 East Fifth Street dropped its eviction of 5C Cultural Center and Cafe yesterday.

The decision draws the lengthy court battle to a close, though it’s far from certain that the conflict between the art and performance space and its upstairs neighbors has been resolved. In fact, the outcome may not be as favorable for the owners of 5C as it appears.

According to David Studer, the maintenance coordinator for the building, the board had been trying to drop the eviction for the past year, but the owners of 5C resisted, opting to keep an injunction in place that discouraged their landlords from seeking the monthly rent. Yesterday a judge sided with the board and lifted that injunction on the grounds that it was moot because the board no longer wished to evict 5C. Now the board is free to pursue around $16,000 in back rent.

“I don’t want to speak too soon, but this is good,” said Denise Gumora, the temporary president of the co-op board for the low-income building. “The extreme drama — all of it has sucked up the energy, money and resources in the building.”

Ms. Gumora said that she planned to pursue the $16,000 sum. “We are owed a considerable amount of back rent,” she said. “Yes, we will begin asking for it.”

Bruce Morris, one of the owners of 5C, denied that he owed his landlords any money. “To bring that up shows there’s still bad feelings,” he said. “We don’t owe rent. That’s not the way we’ve run this cultural center for years.”

As for the injunction that was dropped yesterday, Mr. Morris said it was his only recourse to stop the eviction. He added that the board agreed to not pursue payment for an open violation with the Department of Buildings for work without a permit on the storefront. Previously, the violation had been cited as one of the reasons to evict 5C.

The feud between 5C and the co-op board entered the courts in 1995, when Mr. Morris alleged that the former president of the board, Jemeel Moondoc, had broken agreements in the lease. In 2000, Mr. Moondoc secured injunctions, lifted seven years later, prohibiting live music at the space except for stringed instruments. In 2010, the board, under the guidance of Mr. Moondoc, began eviction proceedings against 5C. Meanwhile, 5C claimed the board was liable for lost profits and in November 2011, a jury ruled that the board should pay $706,997.50.

But earlier this month a State Supreme Court judge dismissed the hefty purse because 5C’s owners were unable to produce adequate evidence of lost profits, court documents reveal. (Those documents along with others from the case are below.)

IMG_7728Maya Millett Trudy Silver and Bruce Morris, owners of the 5C Cultural Center, at State Supreme Court in 2010.

“If that judgment had stood, it might have broke the building,” said Mr. Studer, who is the husband of Ms. Gumora. “The people in the building would not have had the resources to make good on that judgment.”

Mr. Morris and his wife, Trudy Silver, are free to pursue a retrial regarding the alleged damages — something that Harry Kresky, the lawyer for 702 East Fifth Street, said was a possibility. Mr. Morris would not comment on the possibility of rearguing the case.

In 2010, Ms. Silver said that the dispute was rooted in the potential value of their storefront if they were to be kicked out. “They want to get the big money,” she said, referring to the board. Others joined in the fight to keep 5C open, seeing it as an all-too-familiar story that augured the end of another local spot with close ties to the neighborhood. “If the Lower East Side loses 5C it will be a huge loss, not just to the neighborhood that directly surrounds it, but to the city at large and the many musicians, artists, audience members and community members who care about the space and have gained so much from it,” wrote Silvia Ravelo, a board member of 5C, in a letter published in The Villager.

Mr. Studer described the conflict as a maddening ordeal that just could not be resolved.

“We’ve been trying to settle the case with them,” he said of 5C’s owners. “In the end they were not at all rational and took us to trial anyway.”

Mr. Morris countered that the board was difficult to deal with, and that it preferred leaving the dispute to lawyers. “Let’s sit down and talk like real people. We’re not rich,” Mr. Morris said.

Mr. Studer and Ms. Gumora live directly above the club, making them most directly affected by the noise. But they said the noise issue became less about their family’s peace of mind than a vendetta between Mr. Moondoc and Mr. Morris. “There were ways to deal with that that would have been more civil,” Ms. Gumora said.

Last year Mr. Moondoc — who did not return a phone call — was ousted as president of the board, and Ms. Gumora made resolving the lawsuits a priority. “I wish I didn’t have this job, I got stuck with it because no one else wanted to do it,” she said.

Now the board hopes to focus on much-needed repairs to the building, and coexisting with 5C. “Look, they want to party on Friday and Saturday night, fine. We don’t like it, but OK,” Ms. Gumora said in reference to the noise from the venue. “It was an issue when I had kids in the apartment — now they’re in college.”

Despite the end, for now, to the building’s legal woes, Ms. Gumora was guardedly optimistic at best. “We’re new to dealing with Bruce and Trudy. We find them to be not, you know, easy people to deal with,” she said. “We don’t know what’s around the corner.”

Likewise, Mr. Morris took little comfort in the end to the eviction proceeding. Recent complaints with the Department of Buildings against 5C signaled to him that hostility lingered. “What happens in court and what happens in reality are two different things,” he said. “How can I be relieved?”

He hopes to reopen 5C, which has been closed this month for renovations, sometime in April.

5C vs. 702 E. Fifth