BY KASEY NOSS | So Much for “Renew, Rebuild, and Reinvent,” as Mayor Adams dubbed his plan for New York’s economic recovery last March. For the former owners of Pinky’s Space — a restaurant and art gallery in the East Village that shut down last fall — dealing with the city has been nothing short of a bureaucratic nightmare.
Wesley Wobles and his partner Mimi Blitz are still searching for answers after the Department of Transportation razed their eatery’s elaborate outdoor dining space last October, allegedly without proper warning and in violation of official procedure as stated on the department’s Web site. In January, Wobles and Blitz sued the city for negligence, demanding $615,000 in damages to compensate for the demolished structure, valued at $90,000, plus projected income lost due to the restaurant’s consequent closure.
The chain of events has left Wobles and his family reeling financially, relying on food stamps and income from Pinky’s online apparel store to stave off eviction from their Williamsburg apartment.
“They’re trying to deny everything, and sweep our case under the rug, and act like nothing happened, when it’s blatant that something wrong happened,” Wobles said. “It’s really, severely hurt me and my family. We’re still trying to recover from it.”
Wobles and Blitz opened their self-described “food-art space” at 70 E. First St., off of First Avenue, in 2017. Wobles brought to the table two decades of experience as a chef on the New York City restaurant scene. In July 2020, following the launch of the city’s pandemic-era Open Restaurants program, the couple constructed an elaborate, 30-foot-long outdoor dining structure, complete with a crystal chandelier, disco ball, garden space and neon pink string lights. By the time of the sudden closure in November 2022, Pinky’s Space had become a vibrant neighborhood staple.
The outdoor dining structure kept Pinky’s Space afloat during the pandemic, and Wobles and Blitz, like many New York City restaurateurs, restructured their entire business model around its continued existence. The dining shed’s loss was financially devastating, but the inconsistencies surrounding its sudden removal and the city’s indifference in its aftermath have made the ordeal all the more harrowing for Wobles and Blitz.
At around 8 a.m. on Oct. 27, 2022, D.O.T. assembled an 18-person crew and shut down a four-block radius around Pinky’s Space. In the subsequent three hours of demolition work, videos taken by passersby show workers blithely tossing materials into garbage trucks, offering the garden’s potted plants to passersby, and even mocking Blitz and Wobles, with one crew member recorded asking another, “Are you watching the show?”
In another video taken shortly before the demolition began, one of the crew apparently in charge — though Wobles says no one ever identified himself as a city marshal — addresses the passerby filming the video: “Do they know that we’re here?”
The answer was no. Blitz and Wobles only arrived at the scene after a neighbor called to let them know what was happening. By then, the demolition was underway. According to Wobles, he and Blitz never received official notice from the city that their structure was at imminent risk of removal. This represents one of the many ways in which D.O.T. allegedly violated its own policy regarding the enforcement of its Open Restaurants guidelines, as stated on its Web site:
“The task force will also review sheds that, while potentially active, are particularly egregious violators of Open Restaurants program guidelines. In these cases, sheds will be inspected three separate times before action is taken. After each of the first two failed inspections, DOT will issue notices instructing the restaurant owner to correct the outstanding issues; after the third visit, DOT will issue a termination letter and allow 48 hours before issuing a removal notice. DOT will then remove the structure and store it for 90 days — if the owner does not reclaim it in that period, DOT will dispose of the structure.”
Wobles and Blitz claim D.O.T. violated this policy on several levels. First, Wobles maintains Pinky’s Space was only inspected twice in 2022, and both times, was written up for only minor infractions — such as a potted plant that blocked the sidewalk — which were subsequently corrected. According to Wobles, the worst threat he and Blitz received was that if they didn’t correct the issues within 10 days, they would begin to receive fines in the amount of $1,000, in accordance with D.O.T. policy. This had never been necessary, however, as Wobles and Blitz maintain they rectified any issues after each inspection.
“We were never threatened to be shut down. We never received a violation or a fine,” Wobles said. “Every inspector simply stated this is an inspection for corrections.”
Wobles claims his last communication with D.O.T. prior to the demolition took place on Oct. 14, 2022, when a city inspector came to ensure they had removed a vending machine that was written up 10 days prior — they had. Once again, Wobles alleges he received no mention of a possible demolition.
“He told us he was sent to follow up about the vending machine and said he’d report back that it was removed; and said if there were any other issues that came up moving forward, that the D.O.T. was starting to write tickets for violations,” Wobles said. “There was no mention of a teardown, no paperwork stating that we were at risk of being torn down, only the risk of being fined if we didn’t comply in the future.”
The city has repeatedly denied these accusations.
“This structure was not compliant with the program and the owner received proper notification of this removal,” a D.O.T. spokesperson said in a statement to The Village Sun.
Aside from allegedly failing to provide sufficient warning, D.O.T. apparently violated its policy of allowing owners 90 days to retrieve their items from storage before they are disposed of: Virtually all of the shed’s materials were discarded. According to the notice of removal Wobles received after the demolition had occurred, all materials had been deemed “of slight value” and eligible for immediate disposal, in accordance with Section 14-140(e)(2) of the New York City Administrative Code. Pinky Space’s lawyer, Hamutal Lieberman of Helbraun Levey, questions this decision given how costly the structure was to build and maintain.
“It doesn’t make sense to me. How can that all be considered de minimis value?” she said, using a legal term for “trivial.”
For Lieberman, Wobles’s story highlights the “inefficiency” of D.O.T.’s handling of the Open Restaurants program, calling into question the agency’s authority to destroy private property.
“There was a lot of inconsistency within the department on enforcing this outdoor program; one D.O.T. officer would say one thing was not allowed, and then somebody else would come by and they say it is allowed,” said Lieberman, whose firm specializes in hospitality law. “There’s messages coming from the top that weren’t quite getting to everybody at the same time. We saw a lot of it.”
This appears true for Pinky’s Space, where Wobles alleges one inspector would permit them to store the required A.D.A. ramp inside the storefront and retrieve it upon request, or that the insufficient quantity of reflective tape around the structure’s perimeter was acceptable because the neon lights made it visible — only for another inspector to come and consider these violations. And while Wobles maintains the utility cover outside the storefront had been left unobstructed since an inspection last August, a statement corroborated by an official D.O.T. inspection report from Oct. 4, 2022, the city has cited obstruction of the manhole as one reason for the structure’s removal.
Most frustratingly, immediately following the shed’s demolition, Wobles and Blitz were informed they could become reauthorized to participate in the program simply by filling out the application on D.O.T.’s Web site. They did so the next day, forced to rebuild their shed with scrap materials since their “high-quality, durable materials” had been discarded.
According to Lieberman, the circumstances surrounding the demolition appear not only unlawful, but against the spirit of the program’s guidelines, in which removal is intended to target “unsafe and abandoned structures.”
“This was a well-maintained, clean, up-to-code outdoor shed,” she said. “Some of our clients have had way, way worse violations, and they were nowhere near being threatened with termination.”
Since the E. First Street shed’s demolition, the city has done little to discredit Lieberman’s accusation of agency inefficiency. The last communication Wobles and Blitz received from the city was an answer to their lawsuit by the city’s Law Department this past Feb. 14.
In the meantime, whatever the source of the miscommunication between D.O.T. and Pinky’s Space, Wobles and Blitz are paying for it dearly.
“I cannot wait another year or more for the lawsuit to be tried in court. My partner and I have an 8-year-old son to feed,” Wobles said. “This isn’t right.”
You can support Mimi Blitz and Wesley Wobles by checking out their online store at pinkysspace.square.site. While you’re there, consider making a donation to the P.S. I Love You Campaign, the proceeds of which will support the family through this precarious time.