SOUTH STREET SEAPORT — The mall on Pier 17 is shuttered and awaiting a wrecking ball — but that hasn’t stopped a longtime restaurant owner at the pier from coming to work each day.
On the third floor of the now-desolate mall, at the edge of a deserted food court, Joseph Demane, owner of the popular Simply Seafood, is still frying fish for a handful of customers, refusing to leave as he battles his landlord over what he says is a lease that runs through 2020.
“I’m open from 10 a.m. to 9, just like we’ve done for nearly 20 years,“ Demane said last Friday night, standing behind his metal countertop, which now overlooks a sea of empty wooden chairs. "I’m here, ready to serve customers — and I’m not leaving.”
Demane, whose family has been selling fish at the Seaport since the 1940s, is now the last tenant standing in a 28-year-old mall that was supposed to have closed for good last week as developer Howard Hughes Corporation prepares to tear down the dated shopping center and replace it with a sleek, upscale development.
The 42-year-old restaurateur said he wasn't planning on being the lone occupant of the mall, where he's worked since 1995, but he's had no choice as his yearslong fight with the developer over his disputed lease drags through the courts.
The legal wrangling dates back to 2004, when Demane and a group of other shop owners sued the pier's previous landlord, saying the company was trying to force them out to make way for a multi-million-dollar overhaul of the mall.
The landlord then terminated several leases, including Demane's, claiming the tenants were late with bill payments, and the claims and counterclaims have been winding their way through Manhattan Supreme Court ever since. Howard Hughes inherited the battle.
But Demane remains the sole holdout in the mall because he’s the only tenant with a lease through 2020 — the other longtime owners in the suit were already out by 2010.
After the mall officially shut down on Sept. 9, Howard Hughes placed a sign outside announcing that the space was closed for redevelopment, and security guards discouraged people from entering even though Simply Seafood was still open inside, according to Demane's lawyer, John O'Kelly.
However, after O'Kelly complained in Manhattan Supreme Court last Thursday, Howard Hughes took down the sign and the guards have been more welcoming, he said.
Last Friday evening, as confused tourists meandered past the mostly darkened mall, security workers told those who tried to enter that the shopping center was closed, except for the bathrooms — and Simply Seafood.
"OK, is there a place to get a beer?" one middle-aged Norwegian tourist asked the guard as he wandered through the red-trimmed glass doors with a group of fellow travelers.
"Um, yeah, that Seafood place," the guard replied, before the group of 10 wandered into the dim mall.
The doors being quietly opened may have created a befuddling situation for pier visitors, but it's also led to a somewhat steady, if small, stream of customers for Demane.
“It’s been funny seeing people trickle in," Demane said. "They’re pretty surprised to see me here, but also are really supportive — and are buying the food and beer."
Demane made about $500 last Friday. That's half of what he made on a busy day over the summer, but he said he's willing to stay even if he loses money, just to keep his business running.
“Until there’s some resolution, I’m here every day," Demane said.
That resolution remains up in the air, even as Howard Hughes' wrecking ball is slated to crash down on the bulky red mall starting Oct. 1.
O'Kelly said he's hoping to be back in court on Tuesday, but the judge has said he may have to postpone their next hearing until Oct. 8, after the scheduled demolition date. And even if O'Kelly and Demane appear in court this week, there's no guarantee that the judge's decision will come right away.
“We’ve tried to settle several times, but so far we’re at a standstill,” O'Kelly said.
“I don’t know what they’re going to do — maybe they’ll eventually lock him out.”
A Howard Hughes spokesman, however, said they expect the court to evict Demane next week.
"Simply Seafood's lease was legally terminated in 2005. We expect the court to give us the ejectment order next week, " the company said in an emailed statement.
As for Demane, he’s prepared to just keep heading back to his little corner spot in the otherwise uninhabited mall.
His grandfather started working in the Seaport in the 1940s, he said, and he and his father ran a fish store on Fulton Street until 1994, when a previous Seaport landlord offered them a favorable lease through 2020 on Pier 17 to get him to leave their space inland.
“This is what we’ve done for years,” Demane said. “I’m not giving up.”