I had initially planned to write about the building next door to this month’s dump: 231 York St. in Portland’s West End, the former site of The Ice House (née Popeye’s Ice House). Popeye’s was a rough-and-tumble but friendly neighborhood bar famous for the fuselage and plane tail sticking out of its roof and visible from the Casco Bay Bridge.
City officials basically shuttered The Ice House five years ago by choking it to death with a series of progressively stricter restrictions, imposed in response to neighbors’ complaints about drunken patrons. In the summer of 2008, Tod Dana (owner of the import store Asia West) and Alex Fisher (founder of the pet-supply company Planet Dog) teamed up to buy the property with the intention of turning it into an upscale Mexican restaurant. A full-scale renovation was started, then stalled. Years passed. A new decade dawned. In the interim, Dana and Fisher opened El Rayo Taqueria a couple blocks down the street, then added a cantina next to their taqueria while the original project remained a half-finished blight on the neighborhood due to a lack of money, interest, or both.
Last summer, Peter Verrill, Jr. — proprietor of The Foreside Tavern & Side Bar, in Falmouth, and co-creator of Grace Restaurant, in downtown Portland — bought the property from Dana and Fisher for almost a million bucks. Verrill is reportedly planning to turn it into a bistro called Outliers Eatery; renovation work is in progress again, and it’s expected to open this spring.
So that’s that, I figured. Case closed.
Then, in early January, an article on the Portland Press Herald’s website caught my eye. It was headlined, “West End restaurant dream hits parking snag.” But it was not about Verrill’s bistro. Rather, it concerned the property next door, at 227 York St., an old house with an unfinished ground floor space and a four-bedroom apartment above. A guy named Neil Reiter wanted to turn the first floor into a restaurant and bar, but could not meet the zoning requirement that such a business have three off-street parking spaces reserved for the use of its employees and customers.
To get an exemption from that requirement, it would have to be proved that without a waiver allowing the restaurant to open, the property would lose “all beneficial use” — which is to say, become worthless as a place to live, rent, or operate a business.
Tom Landry, a residential real estate broker who also owns a home renovation and construction company, manages the property for an LLC called A Better Maine. “It’s a dump,” Landry told the city’s zoning board of appeals, as quoted by the Herald. “It could be condemned.”
Landry explained to the board that the poor landlord is really in a bind. The rent the landlord is getting for the dumpy apartment is not enough to cover the expense of owning and maintaining such a crummy building. Landry claimed the LLC, which acquired the property in April of 2011, is losing $100 every month on this bad real estate deal.
A slim majority of the board members present were unswayed by Landry’s sob story. They got Landry to admit that no effort has been made to market the ground floor space to a different type of business, like a retail shop, that would not need off-street parking to operate there. Board member William Getz was quoted in the paper saying the building is in this sorry state because of “undercapitalization by the investors,” not the nature of the property itself.
After the 3-2 vote to deny the parking waiver, “things got heated,” Herald reporter Randy Billings wrote. Neil Reiter’s wife, Lauren Reiter, who’s an architect, and Stella Hernandez, co-owner of the classy Munjoy Hill restaurant Bar Lola, who’s been acting as the Reiters’ liason with city officials (the couple lives up in Brooklin, Maine), got downright bitchy with the bureaucrats. They angrily vowed to open the restaurant even if they had to get the zoning ordinance repealed to do so.
I checked out this property and it didn’t look very dumpy to me. A couple strips of vinyl siding had come off one side, but five minutes with a staple gun and a ladder would fix that.
When I called Landry and inquired about this, he said, “some things could be taken out of context when you get out of those meetings.” The building has a new roof and replacement windows, he said, but compared to the condos on its left and the million-dollar bistro being built on its right, it’s a bit of an eyesore. “It’s not a cute house in the neighborhood that’s updated and maintained,” he said.
Landry also told me he wasn’t “100 percent certain,” but he believed off-street parking had recently been secured nearby, so the project could go forward.
Then things got weird. I asked Landry who was behind A Better Maine LLC. “I can’t go into the details of that,” he said.
That’s fine, I figured. He’s only managing the property, and may not be authorized by the owner to disclose their identity to the press. Plus, it seems like whoever bought the place got in over their head. Sure, they only paid $125,000 for a building in the trendy West End with a large apartment and a ground floor that can be renovated for numerous uses, located across from a pretty city park with magnificent views of the bay. But the owner apparently didn’t know enough about the real estate market, zoning laws, or the renovation costs associated with a property like this to make it break even, and now they’re losing money on this investment.
So I was more than mildly surprised to discover when I downloaded the LLC’s paperwork from the state that the sole member of A Better Maine is Amy Landry — Tom’s wife.
I called Tom Landry again the next morning and asked him why he had declined to admit that he essentially owns the place. “Um, I can’t actually get into that,” he said. “It’s a personal thing … I really have nothing more to say about it.”
At this point, I still had a shred of sympathy for the Landrys. Maybe they were getting divorced? Maybe Amy had lost her high-paying job as communications manager for HealthInfoNet and Tom’s two successful businesses had crashed during the recession?
A few phone calls and some Web browsing soon showed that none of that is the case. Reached at work by phone, Amy Landry said she and Tom are still married. She said Tom’s the one handling the property and referred all questions to him.
Tom Landry owns Benchmark Residential & Investment Real Estate, which sells land and homes ranging in price from about $100,000 to upwards of $8.5 million. He’s got eight other agents working for him, according to Benchmark’s website. He also owns Cornerstone Building & Restoration, which specializes in high-end construction and renovation jobs. That business also appears to be alive and thriving.
So to present this situation as one in which a property owner with very limited financial resources, not to mention scant knowledge of the residential real estate and renovation businesses, is being unfairly hamstrung by a city zoning ordinance is beyond preposterous. It’s utter bullshit, and all the more galling when you consider that, during a time when thousands of renters and homeowners in Portland are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, this yuppie fuck is pretending to represent a cash-strapped landlord — who in reality is himself — to fool neighbors and city officials into waiving the rules for his rich buddy’s vanity project.
And he almost got away with it. When the zoning board narrowly voted to deny him, Lauren Reiter and Hernandez — both of whom knew exactly what the real deal was — then had the balls to get pissed at the volunteers charged with protecting the neighbors’ parking rights.
Is this the way a licensed and trustworthy real estate agent is supposed to behave — obscuring your personal investment in a property and misrepresenting the situation to city officials and residents? You’d think Landry would have more respect for the West End neighborhood group, since he’s president of the Back Cove Neighborhood Association. Benchmark’s motto is “Local, Savvy, Responsive.” You’d also think he’d be savvy enough to know that anyone with a credit card and $3 can find out who owns any LLC in Maine in about 30 seconds.
It appears this guy is not only sleazy, he’s stupid.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the other characters involved in this charade are all clamming up. Messages left for the Reiters were not returned. Messages left for Hernandez at her restaurant and on her cell phone were ignored. In addition to Bar Lola, which shares a building with Benchmark’s office, Hernandez also operates Hilltop Coffee Shop a block away, which is owned by an LLC with the same address as Neil Reiter’s marketing firm in Brookin — a curious kind of marketing company, as its website is simply a home page with contact info and an e-mail link.
West End Neighborhood Association president Rosanne Graef had several conversations with Landry about this property and attended the zoning board meetings at which it was discussed. She said Landry never gave her any indication he had an ownership interest in 227 York St.
The first time the board considered the parking waiver request, Hernandez was the only one present to represent the applicant. The board tabled the matter to its next meeting in part because the owner was not present. At the next meeting on Jan. 3, Tom Landry was there, but still no “owner.” Paraphrasing Landry, Graef said he explained the owner’s absence at the meeting by saying “there was some financial embarrassment and it would be too personally revealing to be there.”
The house at 227 York was built in 1860. Graef researched the building and found that there was a cobbler’s shop there in the 1920s and later, in the early ’50s, a small store. A city inspection in the ’50s gave the structure a D grade (for “cheap”), but Graef found other documents indicating that nearly all the structural issues the city identified were subsequently addressed.
A family lived there for decades until its last member passed away, and the son who inherited it sold it to A Better Maine, Graef said. Since then, the property has been causing the types of problems Popeye’s was once blamed for. “It’s kind of like a college-type setup, with people [frequently] moving in and moving out, lots of people living there,” said Graef. “In the summertime, a lot of noise at night.”
On a visit in late January, I saw an empty wine bottle, a couple cans and lots of cigarette butts littering the snow in the narrow sideyard between the Landrys’ party house and the condos next door.
Graef said neighbors are concerned about parking because the restaurant-in-progress on the other side was previously granted a waiver for the seven spots in was required to have. When you add up all the cars the employees and patrons of two restaurants would bring to the block, especially at night, it would clearly cause problems, she said.
Graef doesn’t understand why Landry is being deceitful. “Tom’s a great guy,” she said. “There’s something up. There’s something that’s just not right.”
The Landrys can begin to make things right by coming clean about their ownership of the property. I suggest Tom Landry follow that with personal, public apologies to the zoning board members and the neighborhood association. Hernandez and the Reiters should do the same.
— Chris Busby