Earlier this week, Kosher Today reported that real estate developer and broker Michael Bolla wanted “to open a kosher restaurant at 171 (East) Broadway,” formerly the home of vegetarian-centric restaurant “Broadway East.” Ron Castellano, who owned “Broadway East” and who’s been renovating the space, told us the kosher concept is on the table but he’s also considering several other proposals. The Kosher Today story indicated Castellano was in search of an “investing partner.” Yesterday, we spoke with Bolla, not only about his plans for the restaurant but also about his broader efforts to reinvigorate Jewish life on the Lower East Side.
Bolla said he would not actually be involved in the restaurant venture; he’s simply hoping to broker a deal involving experienced operators in the kosher food world. While he believes a vegetarian restaurant catering to observant Jews on the Lower East Side and throughout New York City could be very successful, Bolla explained the food business is not his expertise and he does not envision partnering with anyone on the concept. The space at 171 East Broadway is big, which could potentially scare away some restaurant operators. But Bolla noted that kosher restaurants typically host large events, making the “Broadway East” location ideal for the right concept. He said there are several interested parties, but no one has made a commitment yet.
Bolla burst on to the scene on the Lower East Side last year after word got out that he was about to begin selling condos in a converted school building at Madison and Jackson streets. In several high profile news stories, he argued the building could be a “catalyst” for, as the New York Times put it, “a revival of the neighborhood’s historic but dwindling Jewish community.” In the months that followed, he made headlines for initiatives far removed from the condo project, including a campaign to save a Judaica shop on Essex Street.
For a time last spring, Bolla hoped to take over Israel Wholesale Imports, transforming it into the Judaica store of the future. In our conversation yesterday, he explained that a deal with the landlord at 23 Essex Street did not work out, but more important, some of his potential partners believed a Jewish learning center would be of more value on the Lower East Side. As a result, Bolla and the Aish Center, a Jewish outreach organization on the Upper West Side, began holding events at the 6th Street Synagogue.
His immersion on the Lower East Side, Bolla said, has been both invigorating and challenging. There may be people who doubt his motivations, believing that these efforts are all part of an elaborate pr campaign to sell apartments. But Bolla sad he is 100% sincere about wanting to help the neighborhood and to do something meaningful in a place that has meant so much, historically, to the Jewish experience. “This is not about business and it’s not about nostalgia,” he said. “I believe the Lower East Side must preserve itself, but not as a museum. I’m just trying to provide my expertise where I can.”
The problem, he said, is that the skills needed to launch programs and save institutions are far removed from his own background as a real estate broker and developer. He’s one of Manhattan’s most successful brokers, having worked with A-list celebrities such as Denzel Washington, Jennifer Aniston and High Jackman. Community development, Bolla explained, requires fundraising acumen. While there are very good and dedicated non-profit organizations on the LES, including the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, he argued there’s no entity currently focused on finding the resources necessary to preserve what’s left of the neighborhood’s Jewish identity. The truth, Bolla said, is that other people who care about preservation must step forward to join his efforts. “I can’t do it myself,” he asserted.
While he focuses on these varied projects on the Lower East Side, Bolla is still engaged in marketing the Madison Jackson building, which brought him to the neighborhood in the first place. In the past several months the owner, Chinatown banker Thomas Sung, who’s confronting serious legal problems, decided the apartments would become luxury rentals. Bolla hopes to begin leasing units in the months ahead. We’ll keep you posted.