The much beloved Café Europa, which has been a mainstay in the Cultural Arts Center on Davie Street for 18 years and the preferred watering hole of many downtown habitués, may exist no longer come May 1.
Restaurants go out of business all the time, but the problem Café Europa has is not a lack of business but that its landlord, the City of Greensboro, refused to negotiate a new lease.
The reason the city refused to even enter into negotiations for a new lease has little to do with the current owner, Jakub Pucilowski, and a lot to do with the Gillespie Park concession stand. It seems the city wanted to remove the person who was leasing the Gillespie Park concession stand and, instead of renegotiating that lease, put the lease out for a request for proposals (RFP). The city got a new tenant for the concession stand and the old one, who is black, lost his lease.
It doesn’t seem like the Gillespie Park concession stand would have much to do with long established downtown restaurant, but in this case it does because the city cannot be perceived as treating a black man leasing space from the city differently from a white man, even if the situations are much different – as they appear to be in this case. What the two leases have in common is that they both expired.
Caught in the middle of all of this is Pucilowski, who, when he received an email from the city on June 22, 2017 notifying him that his lease would expire in February 2018 and the city would be considering what to do – including the possibility of putting out a request for RFPs – had no idea that the next written communication he would receive would be an offer from Greensboro Downtown Parks Inc. (GDPI), not the City of Greensboro, to submit an RFP for the restaurant he has been running for the past four years. GDPI is a nonprofit established to run Center City Park and LeBauer Park for the City of Greensboro.
Pucilowski said that not only was there no negotiation for a new lease, he wasn’t even informed that the lease for Café Europa had been turned over to an independent nonprofit organization to handle. It’s worth noting that not only does GDPI get to decide who will occupy the Café Europa space, but the lease payments will also be made to GDPI, and not the City of Greensboro.
This issue came alive on social media last week and numerous loyal customers of Café Europa have weighed in on the actions taken by the city; most are supportive of Café Europa and critical of the city.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan said she didn’t find out about the issue until last week.
Vaughan said she thought the process could have been handled better and said, “I did try to get the process stopped to allow the city the ability to negotiate with Jakub, but the city attorney advised us to move forward because of a precedent.”
Vaughan said that precedent was the Gillespie Park concession stand.
What wasn’t done at Gillespie Park, however, was that the Gillespie Park concession stand was not turned over to a nonprofit to manage.
Vaughan also tried to get the GDPI board to consider giving Pucilowski the right of first refusal, but she said, “The board voted that down.”
Vaughan noted that she is on the GDPI board but has not attended a meeting in while.
The main complaint from the city doesn’t have anything to do with how Café Europa is operated, but is that the rent Café Europa is paying is too low compared to the rents other restaurants are paying in downtown Greensboro. For some strange reason this seems to considered the fault of Café Europa, not the city who is the landlord and hasn’t raised the rent. However, the rent is miles higher than the rent every other tenant in the Cultural Arts Center is paying, because every other space is rented for $1 a year.
In the real world, very few if any tenants come to their landlord and demand the right to pay more rent. And in the 18 years that Café Europa has been in operation, it is true that neither John Rudy, who founded Café Europa, built the interior and put the fountain on the patio, nor the current owner, Pucilowski, had ever gone to the city demanding the right to pay more rent. It is also true that the city never demanded that Café Europa pay more rent.
There doesn’t seem to be any dispute that the current rent is below market rates for downtown restaurants, but the way the city handled that fact is decidedly odd, even when you consider the Gillespie Park precedent.
Without consulting or notifying either the Greensboro City Council or the owner of Café Europa, the city staff decided to turn the restaurant over to GDPI and GDPI issued the RFP request. GDPI is treating this long-standing restaurant the same way the newly built restaurants in LeBauer Park were handled, with an RFP process.
With new space it makes a lot of sense to issue an RFP and gauge the interest in the location and consider all available options. With a restaurant that has been in business for 18 years and has an extremely loyal following it doesn’t, unless the city is insisting that the precedent set by the Gillespie Park concession stand be followed, which in this case it is.
Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson said that the decision was made to turn the management of the restaurant space occupied by Café Europa to GDPI because it was already managing Center City Park across the street and LeBauer Park right next door. Wilson said that since GDPI was handling the two take-out restaurants in LeBauer Park, it made sense to add this restaurant to their portfolio.
Wilson also said that because the value of the lease was relatively low, that the City Council did not have to weigh in on the decision.
When asked if he made the decision, Wilson said, “Yes.”
He said the city staff made decisions on leases all the time without consulting the City Council. He added that whether GDPI or the city handled the lease the “process would be exactly the same.”
Wilson said that his understanding was that Pucilowski had been notified of what the city was doing, but the city hasn’t produced any emails or written correspondence, other than the June 22 email that only states and RFP is a possibility and mentions nothing about a nonprofit taking over the management of the space.
Wilson also noted that in the RFP process a number of factors other than price are considered and the longevity of the current restaurant in that space would be a consideration.
Pucilowski said, “Nobody, least of all me, would have wanted such a public airing of this.”
He said that he wasn’t even given the opportunity to negotiate a new lease but that, after the June 22 email, the next written notification he received was from GDPI stating that he had the opportunity to submit an RFP to GDPI.
The lack of communication with the city about the future of his business is what seemed to bother Pucilowski more than anything. He said he expected an email or some written communication from the city notifying him of what the city was doing and that that would have been appreciated.
City Councilmember Justin Outling, who is on the board of GDPI and does attend meetings, said that he had a lot of confidence in the GDPI board to make the right decision.
Outling said that because it was a relatively small contract it was not the kind of thing the City Council should be doing. He said, “I feel comfortable at how it was handled.”
Outling also noted the Gillespie Park precedent as the reason the lease had to be put out as an RFP. He said that the city had a responsibility to treat everyone who leased space the same.
Outling said, “It’s not the job of the city to subsidize private restaurants that compete with other private restaurants.”
Outling also said that in this case he thought it was a wise decision to turn the lease over to GDPI to get it away from politics.
Outling said, “We as a city should not be leasing out space. We don’t do it well and this is not an appropriate function for the city.”
Outling also made it clear that he didn’t put the fault for the current low lease payments on Pucilowski. He said, “It’s not his fault; it’s the city’s fault.”
Outling noted that there has not been much interest in leasing the Café Europa space. There was reportedly one other RFP submitted.
Outling said the lease had gone for so long without anyone from the city paying any attention to it, “We don’t know that the rate Jakub is paying now is the right rate or not.” He said that is what should be determined by the RFP process.
Outling said that RFP process would let the city know if it was subsidizing a private restaurant and if so by how much, which is information the city doesn’t have at this point.
Outling said that the controversy over this one restaurant lease brought up “something that I’m concerned about with everything the city does. What is our metric for success? What are we doing here? What is the goal?”
Outling also noted that if the City Council didn’t like what was done that five votes on the City Council could change it.