When Darnell Small decided to rebrand Prive Deux as Tangerine last spring, he never imagined that the transition would put his business in jeopardy. However, the club owner tells Eater that some small cosmetic alterations to his business have resulted in a bitter legal battle with his landlord, Rivertown Holdings, which owns Atwater Brewing Company.
It's an all too familiar story. With property values on the rise and downtown spaces at a premium, many business owners are feeling pressured or even coerced by property managers into abandoning their businesses.
Located at 237 Jos Campau, Tangerine opened under it's original name Prive Deux approximately five years ago in the space originally occupied by Atwater's first restaurant. At the time, Small says the building was managed by a different company who was looking for a business to fill the space. Small like the idea and decided to move Prive from its original spot in the old London Chop House.
Approximately three years into his 10-year lease, the owner says his building was transferred to Rivertown Holdings.
According to Small, in 2013 Atwater's CEO Mark Reith made three separate offers to convince him to vacate the building. The first one "was $5,000, which is just ridiculous when I have six years on my lease...I was very insulted," Small says. Reith followed up with a $25,000 buyout, and then $50,000. Each time, Small turned down the money. "I'm responsible for the lease. I'm accountable for the lease. You need to buy my lease out. You need to negotiate," he says.
Small believes Reith wants him out of the building in order to expand Atwater or possibly reopen the original restaurant, and for the past year has been attempting to bully him into breaking his rental agreement.
According to Atwater, Small violated his lease agreement by making a late rent payment as well as damaging the building.
Walking through Tangerine, Small points to several cosmetic changes that he says Reith used to during litigation. "We've made different changes and improvements here for years."
Most of the alterations seem to be surface deep. Small has painted the walls and the bar, and placed pieces of painted drywall over several windows above the bar. He's also changed the carpet and placed a piece of granite tile over what he describes as broken tiles. The owner has also added matching granite around the outside of a fireplace, replaced doors on bathroom stalls, and one sink.
"We got our inspections [and] had our permits," Small adds. Each change, he says, is a temporary, cosmetic alteration with the exception of the sink, which he has no plans to take with him.
Most recently, Reith accused Small of not holding the proper license to operate a dance club. In order to resolve the issue, Small placed furniture over the dance floor and went to the city to acquire the proper permits.
As for the unpaid rent, Small says court documents are referring to one incident in which his rent was paid late but within the grace period documented in his lease.
Small alleges he's faced other types of harassment as well. He accuses Atwater of painting the sidewalks outside his business to appear like a no parking zone. Last summer, a neighboring secure parking lot, Stroh's River Place told Small they would not be renewing his contract for the parking lot due to his conflict with Atwater.
Small believes the parking situation was an attempt to discourage customers from coming to Tangerine, noting that for several weeks Atwater removed exterior lighting on his side of the building to make it appear dark and unsafe. Small hired private security to monitor cars on the street.
Currently, the club owner is fighting eviction.
"They came up with these allegations and it seems like it has kind of been working because we're still in court. I don't know it just looks kind of better for them I don't know. I even tell my attorney, 'Why are we still here?' and I'm just kind of nervous," Small says.
In a brief email, Mark Reith responded to the allegations put forth by Darnell Small. "The Hon. Patricia Fresard has already entered a judgment of Possession in this case, as well as made findings of fact and conclusions of law that Mr. Small demolished and renovated much of the Landlord's building without obtaining its consent and in direct violation of two separate court orders, along with other lease violations."
Still, Small says his fight isn't over yet. Tangerine's legal counsel have been granted a review tomorrow by Judge Daniel P. Ryan, who presides over business court.
For now, the future of Tangerine is uncertain. "When you have somebody trying to kick you out and it's so obvious, my issue is with the courts and the law," Small says. "They're using the law to bully me. I am being bullied by the landlord Atwater Beer through the courts."
Correction: This section of this article regarding Judge Daniel P. Ryan has been amended. The article previously alleged that Judge Ryan would review the case to determine whether Judge Fresard should have recused herself. According to Small's attorney Laurence Walker, Judge Fresard was taken off the case due to the fact that she does not preside over business court matters.