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Ciprianis Push for Rainbow Room Landmarking

Ciprianis Push for Rainbow Room Landmarking

The Observer 12/2/2008

by Eliot Brown

Gradually, the letters have begun to accumulate in Robert Tierney’s Lower Manhattan office. They all implore the same thing: landmark status for the Rainbow Room in 30 Rockefeller Center.

The first letter to Mr. Tierney, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, came in September from Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, a union with Rainbow Room employees that has strong connections to elected officials. Then came a letter from Richard Parsons, the Time Warner chairman, who wrote there was “no more romantic space than the Rainbow Room” in New York. Then the Historic Districts Council sent a letter of approval; a similar letter from the Municipal Art Society is forthcoming; and on Tuesday night, Manhattan’s Community Board 5 was expected to take up the issue.

The sudden stream of support is no coincidence. Behind the push is the Cipriani family, led by Arrigo Cipriani and his son Giuseppe, the upscale restaurateurs who have run the famed Art Deco restaurant and banquet hall since 1999. In August, the Ciprianis—operators of four local upscale banquet halls and convicted of state tax evasion last year—petitioned the LPC to grant the Rainbow Room landmark status.

Now the family is leaning on elected officials, business executives and other big names to back its application.

The uncommon move is a not-so-subtle jab at the Rainbow Room’s landlord, Tishman Speyer, the powerful and politically connected real estate firm led by Jerry and Rob Speyer. As interior landmark designation would restrict changes or alterations to the restaurant and banquet hall, it would likely weaken the Speyers’ hand in future lease negotiations with Cipriani or any other potential tenant. It would also effectively guarantee that the Rainbow Room, or something very similar, remain the space’s use in perpetuity.

Tishman Speyer has not yet taken a position on the landmarking, though landlords typically resist such moves, as they can curb their ability to charge higher rents. Further, the Speyers and Ciprianis have been engaged in a series of spats over the Rainbow Room, as the restaurateurs have filed multiple lawsuits and the rents in the existing lease are currently being determined via arbitration.

In making the rounds for support of the landmarking, representatives of the Cipriani family have said the impetus is twofold. First, the representatives say, the Cipriani family values landmarks and wants to see the Rainbow Room’s historic look protected, like that of most of the family’s other city venues.

Second, and probably more relevant, Cipriani’s lease expires in 2013, and the family says it is worried that Tishman Speyer will try to convert the 56,000-square-foot venue to office space, which could potentially be rented at higher rates.

Kevin Finnegan, a Cipriani attorney, said that the office-space conversion was indeed a worry, but denied that financials were the major impetus behind the company’s desire to landmark the venue.

“I’d hate to have anyone get the sense that this is a primary motivation of the Ciprianis,” Mr. Finnegan said. “They pay a premium for space—they are in wonderful spaces all over the city. … They would be under constraints just like a landlord would be in terms of changes or alterations, so it’s a mixed bag in terms of the economics.”

The legitimacy of the Ciprianis’ office space-conversion fear is unclear. Tishman Speyer has denied such a move is under consideration, and preservationists and others contacted by Cipriani expressed skepticism about the concept.

WHATEVER THEIR REASON, the Ciprianis’ public stance so far makes clear that they want to position themselves to renew their lease in 2013—the firm addressed the lease expiration and potential office space-conversion issue in its application to the LPC—and to renew on favorable terms. Landmark status for the Rainbow Room, which could apply to items like furniture and lighting fixtures depending on the terms of a designation, has the potential to both decrease the market value of the space and deter potential tenants who would want to make alterations.

To realize its goal of a landmarked Rainbow Room, Cipriani has enlisted a posse of consultants and lawyers to round up the support of elected officials, executives and the community; to do its own historic research; and to craft an application to the LPC. The team consists of the lobbying firm of Capalino + Company, which is highly experienced in land use; Mary B. Dierickx, a historic preservation consultant who made the 75-page application to the LPC; and Mr. Finnegan, an attorney at Levy Ratner.

The consultants have led Rainbow Room tours and met with preservation groups including the Municipal Art Society and aides to, among others, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who represents the area. The goal seems to be to get the groups and officials to lean on the LPC to act on the application, a subjective decision that mostly rests in the hands of Mr. Tierney, the commission’s chairman, and his staff.

(Elected officials often pressure the LPC, sometimes with success, and Assemblyman Dick Gottfried and State Senator Liz Krueger last week wrote a letter in support of landmarking.)

A commission spokeswoman, Lisi de Bourbon, said LPC staff is looking at changes made to the Rainbow Room, and then it will make a recommendation on landmarking.

THIS IS NOT to say that many of those pledging support needed much of a push. A number of the elected officials and preservationists involved voiced strong support for landmarking the Rainbow Room, or at least the main section of it on the 65th floor of 30 Rock.

“It seems to me that the public would be upset by the loss of the Rainbow Room even if most of us don’t go out dancing,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “Certainly, the Rainbow Room, we think, is deserving of landmark status.”

It appears the biggest potential obstacle would be Tishman Speyer itself, which is the controlling owner of Rockefeller Center. It is uncommon for the LPC to landmark a property over an owner’s objections, and in this case, the owner is one of the best-known landlords in the city, with holdings that include Stuyvesant Town and the MetLife tower.

The Speyers are also one of New York’s most politically connected developers, and Rob Speyer personally raised $25,750 for Ms. Quinn last year when she was considering a run for mayor, according to campaign filings.

In a statement, Virginia Lam, a spokeswoman for Tishman Speyer, said of Rockefeller Center that “we feel our track record demonstrates that we have worked hard to respect this great and iconic landmark.”

As to the LPC’s examination: “We look forward to its findings.”

Since the Cipriani lease on the Rainbow Room started in 1999, the tenant has had a number of acrimonious quarrels with the Speyers. In 2003, Cipriani sued the landlord to remove new metal detectors that had been installed to search the Rainbow Room’s guests, claiming that the building owners sought to “maliciously damage the reputation and business of the Rainbow Room.”

The two parties have also been engaged in a lengthy dispute over the rent in a five-year lease extension, which began in February. Tishman Speyer, Cipriani claimed in court papers, wants more than $8.7 million a year for the space, compared with the $4 million base rent charged in the 1999 lease.

Seemingly connected to the lease negotiations, which are in arbitration, is a Cipriani lawsuit filed in August. The Rainbow Room managers said in a lawsuit that Tishman Speyer claimed Cipriani was in default of its lease on account of a long-faulty fire alarm system (a lawyer for Cipriani, David Rozenholc, said it has now been rectified, though each party wants the other to pay for the work).

Mr. Rozenholc says these squabbles seem to have no connection to the landmarking, though they do raise the question as to whether Tishman Speyer would be eager to sign a new lease with a seemingly intractable tenant.

As for the timetable of any landmarking, the LPC did not offer one on its decisions. With an eye on its 2013 lease expiration, Cipriani, the company said in its application to the LPC, believes “an expeditious evaluation of these important spaces is necessary.”

—With additional reporting by Chris Shott and Adam Rose