Chelsea Residents Sue to Stop Possible “Speakeasy Casino” From Opening in Residential Building



Exterior of the residential building on West 17th Street. Photo: Gabriella Maestri

Five Chelsea residents are suing their building owner, OTL Enterprises, to prevent a potential event space from opening on the ground floor of their residential building.

“I can’t imagine a less safe environment for her to be in than that, with this type of establishment,” said Julia Himler, a resident of the building. Himler was referring to her 18-month-old daughter while speaking during a recent community board meeting. “I hope that you all can empathize and understand my concerns about the noise, drunkenness, and what’s inappropriate for young children,” she said.

Earlier this year, the residents of 221-225 West 17th Street learned that Flatiron-based company, Big Deal had plans to purchase the building’s ground floor store front, with the intention of turning it into a speakeasy-themed lounge.

In the lawsuit, filed on Sept. 20, the residents claim using the area as an event space would violate the building’s governing documents. It states, “the condominium’s sole commercial unit may not be used as a bar or club and ‘casino,’ ‘cocktail lounge,’ ‘event space’ or ‘coffee bar’ because of clear and unequivocal use restrictions.” It goes on to state that a bar is prohibited in the building unless “incidental to a restaurant.”

During the Oct. 12 community board meeting, Big Deal’s founder, Wendy Rubin, outlined her plan for the ground floor: a coffee shop and cocktail bar with a downstairs area she described as a “Great Gatsby-like casino inspired space.” Rubin submitted a petition with over 400 signatures and 18 letters of support.

“Our marketing and the law may be against each other, but we’re not a casino and we’re not a restaurant,” said Rubin.

Mixed-use buildings are common in New York City as bars, coffee shops and other assembly spaces are often on the ground floor in residential buildings, according to the New York City Department of Buildings. But, a commercial license is needed. According to residents at the community board meeting, Big Deal has not obtained such a license for this space.

“I think Wendy is misunderstood on what laws we have against the sponsor, she could not have liquor, unless it’s attached to a restaurant, ” said Adam So, a resident of the building and plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Jennifer Recine, an attorney with Kasowitz Benson Torres, is representing So and the other residents in the lawsuit. “Ms. Rubin has clearly articulated this is not going to be a restaurant use, and so, under the plain language of the documents, this is simply not a permitted use,” she said. 

According to the lawsuit, “Many residential unit owners have young families and had they understood that a club or bar—not a restaurant with an incidental bar—operating until the early morning hours was even a possible use for the space, they likely would not have purchased their apartments.”

“My husband and I have worked our whole lives to afford an apartment to raise our young children in and the nature of the business which is described as being transported to a Vegas nightclub, is simply unfathomable for me right below my unit on the fourth floor,” said Jill Brand, a resident.

Big Deal brands itself as both Big Deal Casino, which according to its website is “the only casino in Manhattan” and as Big Deal Casino Academy, “the first and only licensed dealer school in the state of New York.” Gambling is illegal in New York state, unless regulated by the New York  State Gaming Commission. Big Deal’s website states it is open to all ages and customers use only play money and prizes, no cash. Because of this, the business does not fall under the state gaming commission’s jurisdiction. 

“It seems like a great business but it’s just not appropriate for this block,” said Joel Simkhai, another resident. “We like our quiet – this is why we all chose to live here and we want to keep it that way,” he said. 

After listening to nearly 50 community members voice their opinions, eight community board members denied Rubin’s application, citing improper use of space, lack of commercial license and the proposed hours on a residential street.

The full board will vote on Big Deal’s proposal on Nov. 3.

OTL Enterprises did not respond to the Midtown Gazette’s request for comment.