BY MARY REINHOLZ | Historic Tammany Hall was once headquarters for a political society dating back to the 18th century that became a Democratic Party machine doling out patronage jobs and helping immigrants, many of them Irish. The building will soon get a new tenant, one with a far less lurid paw print than the Tammany tiger, but bearing a familiar corporate logo newly added to the facade of the refurbished brick-and-limestone edifice in Gramercy. The neo-Georgian Colonial building has been expanded to more than 73,000 square feet.
The presence of Petco Inc., an international pet food supplier valued at $4 billion, now dominates the old populist haunt visited by New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt for its 1929 dedication. (F.D.R. later turned against Tammany.) Fast-forward to February 2022 when the San Diego-based Petco retailer signed a multiyear lease for its flagship New York City store, currently at 850 Broadway, allowing it to occupy 30,000 square feet of the long-vacant landmarked building that now is topped with a massive glass-and-steel dome.
The Broadway store could relocate to the nearby site by the end of this month, according to sources at Petco and Reading International, a real estate and entertainment company that owns Tammany, now called 44 Union Square East.
“It will be like no Petco you’ve ever seen before,” gushed a grizzled manager wearing a hard hat at an E. 17th Street Tammany entrance. He described himself as a Petco coordinator working with Schimenti Construction, the contractor at the site that is preparing three floors for Petco, along with its varied assets, reportedly including a collection of exotic birds, fish, hamsters and reptiles for sale, plus services for cat adoption and fresh foods for disabled dogs. Petco will also provide its own veterinarian clinic, dubbed “Vetco Total Care.”
The Petco coordinator declined to give his name, stating, “I don’t have authorization to speak to the media,” a phrase repeated by a Petco merchandise manager at the Broadway store, who offered a similar relocation date. Ron Coughlin, C.E.O. of Petco, and iPetco staff in California, did not respond to calls for additional information.
Meanwhile, the New York City Carpenters Union and its district council have spent months assailing Petco and Schimenti in a flurry of words and images for hiring nonunion labor to conclude Tammany’s massive renovation. The aforementioned Petco merchandise manager said she could not comment on a truck dispatched by the union that has been parked repeatedly near the Broadway store and sometimes outside the Tammany entrance on Park Avenue South, blasting Petco and its contractor in fliers for “destroying prevailing wages @ Union Square East, Manhattan.”
The statement added in part: “The New York City District Council of Carpenters believes that Petco and Schimenti have an obligation to the community to see that Area Labor Standards are met for construction work performed on any of their projects.”
In recent weeks, the truck replaced Scabby, the legendary inflatable union rat that had towered over a Tammany entrance since the first of the year after there were reports that Petco might relocate its New York flagship there as soon as January. Scabby has since moved to protest at another Manhattan Petco site, a union truck driver said.
Peter Brereton, an organizer for the Carpenters Union and representative for the district council, which has 20,000 members, said he believes the Petco project was delayed in opening because it is using less-skilled nonunion labor and paying far less than union workers’ wages.
“Petco is intending to build their flagship store with nonunion contractors that often pay workers up to 80 percent less in wages and benefits than union contractors,” the union flier said.
Brereton later told this reporter that Schimenti, in fact, was willing to hire union workers but that Petco rejected the proposal. He said the nonunion workers at the site “get low wages, no benefits, no retirement.”
The union truck has also targeted the two sisters who run Reading International, a Los Angeles-based family firm that also owns live theaters, like the Orpheum in the East Village and Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village. One side of the union vehicle displays photos of Ellen Cotter, vice chairperson and C.E.O. of Reading, and Margaret Cotter, chairperson of the board and vice president in charge of real estate and development at their family’s firm.
Margaret Cotter purchased Tammany in 2001 from Local 91 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which had owned it since 1943. She demolished its auditorium, where F.D.R. spoke, during an extensive retail makeover starting in 2015, evicting longtime Tammany tenants, such as the Union Square Theater, the New York Film Academy and commercial tenants around the corner on Park Avenue South, including a street-level deli, a liquor store and a newsstand. She won varied city approvals to build an award-winning glass-and-steel dome atop Tammany, which adds more than two additional floors to the building. The dome was designed by Todd Poissant of BKSK Architecture to emulate a turtle, the religious symbol of the Lenape Nation and its long-ago leader Tamanend, who inspired the Tammany name of yore.
Jeffrey D. Roseman, vice chairperson of Newmark real estate brokerage’s New York headquarters on Park Avenue, said his company tried to get a tenant for Tammany in 2020 during the COVID pandemic when many commercial enterprises were leaving New York.
“But there wasn’t much activity,” he said, even though brokers touted the site’s “iconic branding opportunities.” Nevertheless, Newmark almost landed a high-tech client. Roseman said he brought in Ripco brokerage, which finally got Petco to sign a long-term lease with Reading International, the developer.
Asked if Petco was consistent with Tammany’s history and legend, the broker joked, “It’s not the sexiest client in the world.”
Roseman’s company is no longer involved with the project but he seemed concerned about the union protests over Petco’s impending arrival at Tammany.
“For the life of me I cannot understand why there should be a problem with the union,” he said. He noted, however, the union workers are “more expensive” than nonunion labor.
Really interesting. It’s ironic to have a store catering to pets every need while neglecting its human staff.
District Council of NYC Carpenters union is not blasting Petco’s treatment of its staff but for its hiring of non-union labor at the Tammany Hall bldg where a new Petco store will relocate possibly this month.