After months of behind-the-scenes wrangling over the choice of a tenant for the former Noah’s Ark Deli space, Seward Park Co-op’s directors voted 7 to 4 last night to award the lease to Comfort Diner, a Midtown restaurant that is not kosher.
Though choosing a restaurant to take over the vacancy at 399 Grand St. may seem like a routine business decision by a landlord, it had become a political minefield over the last several months, generating debate about whether the co-op had a responsibility to replace Noah’s Ark with another kosher restaurant to serve the neighborhood’s dwindling Orthodox Jewish population. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver directly involved himself, personally calling members of the co-op’s board to lobby them to support an application from the owners of fast-food operation Holy Schnitzel, who had outlined a business plan for a kosher restaurant.
Last night’s vote means that the commercial strip lining the south side of Grand Street between Essex and Clinton streets will gain a new dining option in a space that’s been empty since last fall. Noah’s Ark closed for the Jewish holidays and did not reopen; Seward Park Co-op eventually evicted the restaurant for failure to pay more than six figures in long-overdue rent.
Comfort Diner, which has operated at 214 E. 45th St. for nearly 20 years, boasts a menu of “good home cooking, quick service and popular prices” that features “both classic and new comfort food.” The deal includes a 10-year lease with a five-year option; renovations are expected to begin as soon as the ink is dry.
“It’s not just the financials, but the overall package,” Frank Durant, the co-op’s general manager, said this morning. “Their plan for that space was a good one for the majority of the community. This guy wants to make it a family-friendly, neighborhood-friendly place.”
Comfort Diner will have seasonal sidewalk seating and be a good gathering spot for the whole neighborhood, Durant said. Its owner will be much more present, locally, than the owners of Noah’s Ark, whose flagship business was in New Jersey, he said.
The co-op still hopes to find a place for Holy Schnitzel’s kosher proposal, possibly in another storefront space it owns that is expected to come available early next year, Durant said.
Both board members and members of the management team spent many months recruiting kosher establishments as options, Durant said, citing outreach to community groups and religious leaders. “The board anguished over this decision, and we really did try our best,” he said.
The board’s vote was a direct rejection of the wishes of Silver, whose use of political influence to stall the redevelopment of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area was the subject of a lengthy and unflattering investigative piece in the New York Times last week. Reviewing four decades of records documenting the relationship between Silver and protege William Rapfogel, who faces criminal charges in a scheme involving the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the Times concluded: “A primary focus of their alliance had been the struggle to preserve the Jewish identity of the neighborhood.”