Wymore rent deal questioned


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Rosenthal files complaint about opponent's low-cost Broadway headquarters


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  • City Council candidate Mel Wymore has run his campaign from a storefront at 2244 Broadway, between 80th and 81st Streets, which he is occupying under a low-rent sublet agreement. Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who he is challenging, questioned the arrangement. Photo: Michael Garofalo



Upper West Side City Council candidate Mel Wymore has made storefronts a signature issue in his bid to unseat incumbent Council Member Helen Rosenthal, holding events at local businesses imperiled by rent increases, conducting a survey of empty retail space in the neighborhood, and vowing to take on landlords who would displace longtime commercial tenants. Now, as the race enters its final weeks before Democratic primary on Sept. 12, the Broadway storefront that serves as Wymore's headquarters, located in a building owned by a Wymore campaign contributor, has become a source of pre-election controversy.

Since June, Wymore has run his campaign from a storefront at 2244 Broadway, between 80th and 81st Streets. As of Wymore's most recent campaign finance filing, his campaign had not reported making any rent payments for the office, nor was the space listed as an in-kind contribution or liability, as noted in a formal complaint filed Aug. 14 with the New York City Campaign Finance Board by Rosenthal's campaign. According to the Rosenthal campaign, retail space on that stretch of Broadway generally rents for about $200 per square foot. Wymore's campaign counters that, due to a unique set of circumstances, the storefront in question currently has a market value of $0, and says that the Campaign Finance Board cleared the arrangement in advance.

Prior to serving as Wymore's campaign office, 2244 Broadway was the home of Birdbath Bakery, a small chain with two other Upper West Side shops. The bakery had occupied the Broadway storefront since 2013, but according to the building's landlord, George Beane, its continued viability at the location was threatened by a recent downturn in business, due in part to scaffolding that covered the building for much of the last two years. Beane said he lowered Birdbath's rent once in hopes of keeping the bakery in the space and avoiding the expenses associated with carrying a vacancy and finding a new tenant, but the bakery's struggles continued. Birdbath's owner came to Beane this spring ready to turn in the keys to the store and vacate the premises.

“I tried to persuade Birdbath to hold on until the scaffold came down,” Beane said. He offered to temporarily waive Birdbath's rent in order to keep the business in the space. Birdbath's owner said that even with no rent he couldn't afford to stay open. The parties eventually agreed that Birdbath would temporarily close; Beane would allow the store to maintain its lease without paying rent beginning June 1 and Birdbath would reopen in the fall once the façade work on the building was complete. (Beane explained he didn't know at the time when the scaffolding would come down; it was eventually removed in August.)

Beane explained that it was in his interest to keep Birdbath in the space for a variety of reasons. He would suffer a short-term loss under the arrangement, he said, but even if Birdbath had left, he was unlikely to find a new tenant to rent the space while the scaffolding was up. Ultimately, he was confident that the bakery would see an uptick in business and resume paying rent once the scaffolding was removed. “Birdbath is a good tenant and they had always done well,” he said.

With Birdbath out of the space for the summer, Beane said, “the store was worth nothing” and had no market value as a short-term sublet. Based on previous experience, he said, finding a tenant to run a pop-up store for the summer would have been impossible given the short notice. “If there'd been any chance of Birdbath being able to rent to a tenant who would have paid real rent I would have done it in a second,” he said.

Nonetheless, Beane said, he preferred to have a tenant in the space because a vacancy would be bad for the building's other commercial tenants. Beane knew Wymore was in search of space for a campaign office and put the candidate in touch with Birdbath's owner. With Beane's blessing, the parties arrived at an agreement to sublet the space, under which the campaign would pay $616 monthly to cover Birdbath's utilities and other fixed costs. “Financially it didn't make any difference to me whether or not Mel went in,” Beane said.

According to Wymore spokesman Dan Gleick, the campaign brought the proposed arrangement to the Campaign Finance Board before it was finalized. The Wymore campaign shared communications from a Campaign Finance Board official stating that the space would not be considered an in-kind contribution if Beane affirmed in a sworn statement that the space had no market value, which Beane subsequently did. “Before signing on to help Birdbath keep their space, the CFB blessed the idea as completely kosher,” Gleick said.

Campaign finance records show that Beane contributed $2,750 to Wymore's campaign earlier this year, the maximum allowed by law. Were the storefront deemed to be an in-kind contribution to Wymore on Beane's part, it would be in excess of the contribution limit. Beane also contributed $2,750 to Wymore's 2013 city council campaign (Wymore lost narrowly to Rosenthal in that year's Democratic primary).

Birdbath Bakery owner Maury Rubin could not be reached for comment. Campaign finance records show Rubin contributed $100 to Rosenthal's campaign in August, as well as $100 to her successful 2013 campaign.

As of Aug. 7, the most recently available date for which campaign finance disclosure was available when Rosenthal's campaign filed the complaint, Wymore's campaign had not yet reported making any payments to Birdbath. The campaign attributes this to a delay in finalizing the sublet agreement, which was signed and notarized in August, and said expenses associated with the sublet should appear in a disclosure filing by the end of this week.

Beane said that Birdbath Bakery plans to return to the storefront and resume paying rent in October, after the primary election in the heavily Democratic 6th council district is decided. “Unless I was sure Birdbath was moving back in I wouldn't have approved the sublet,” he said.

“It worked out well for Birdbath and it worked out best for Mel,” Beane added.

The Campaign Finance Board declined to comment on the Rosenthal campaign's complaint. Campaigns that apply for the city's matching funds program are subjected to a pre-election audit process to ensure compliance with campaign finance law before public funds are disbursed. Wymore received $95,095 in public funds in August.


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