Business owners say landlord Marty Rifken has sought to shorten leases.
This past summer Marty Rifken approached Tori Johnson, the co-owner of Ancora Coffee Roasters, to see if she’d be willing to cut short the lease on her flagship cafe at 112 King St. She wasn’t.
“Ultimately I’d love to stay here for life,” says Johnson, whose lease runs through 2019. Johnson bought the cafe a few years ago from founders Sue and George Krug, who launched the coffee shop on King Street in 1994.
Johnson says that Rifken, who is president of the Rifken Group LTD and one of the owners of 112-116 King St., mentioned the potential for sale or development of the property.
Dino Maniaci, who owns Woof’s bar, says he recently renewed his lease at 114 King St., but only for five years. “I did want a longer lease,” Maniaci says, noting Rifken mentioned the potential for building something on the site but was vague.
But Rifken says all is status quo, including for 116 King St., which currently houses Opus Lounge. “These guys all have leases, and we have no plans for the development of the building.”
Rifken acknowledges that someone wants to buy the properties, but his group is not interested at the moment.
“We don’t want to sell unless we find an appropriate trade. I’m very happy with the property as it is now,” Rifken says, adding, that he is “a little ambivalent” about selling.
“I like the people we have as tenants,” he says. “It’s in a great location. And the building has maintained itself very well. We’re still making improvements on it as we go, so we’re happy with the building. There is no reason for us to sell. And it’s certainly not for development.”
Rifken says a proposed project on the corner of King Street has caused speculation about his property. “The fact is that the people next door in the vacant lot are trying to do some development, and so people logically think well, why not extend that to include our building? But it doesn’t make economic sense at all. We’re perfectly happy with our building, and so we have no interest.”
The proposed project next door is the King Hotel, a seven-story boutique hotel development that would include a restaurant, music venue and rooftop bar. Merchant co-owners Patrick Sweeney and Joshua Berkson are the principals in the project; the parking lot is owned by Scott Lewis of CMI Management.
Berkson and Sweeney have not yet submitted formal plans to the city, though they have met with neighbors and city officials to discuss the project. Berkson says they will soon present the project for information-only purposes to the city’s Urban Design Commission. No votes are taken at these sessions, but they are a way for developers to get early feedback on the design elements of their projects.
Berkson says the project has been positively received by the neighborhood, city staff and Mayor Paul Soglin. “Everybody seems to agree this is good for the site,” he says.
But there is a major sticking point, says Ald. Mike Verveer, whose downtown district includes King Street. He says the revised zoning code that went into effect just a few years ago sets strict height limits for the 100 and 200 block of King Street — limits that can no longer be waived with a variance.
Verveer says the code would have to be amended to allow the project as currently envisioned to go forward. Otherwise, the top couple of stories in the project would need to be “stepped back” to allow clear sight lines to the Capitol.
“These view corridors are not allowed to be exempted,” Verveer says. “That’s why it would require an actual amendment to the zoning code.”
Verveer says it would be up to him to introduce a zoning text amendment, which would ultimately need approval by the Common Council after a recommendation from the Plan Commission.
He says he is unsure how supportive city staff will be of a “wholesale rewrite of that provision,” but has yet to have a “sit-down conversation” with them on the issue.
Berkson, who met with city staff April 7, is confident things can be worked out. “All the feedback we have gotten is positive. We’re continuing to work through city and staff to have discussions on whether these zoning changes that are specific to our site are amenable.”