Bella Luna to move; Milky Way to close

May 2, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

1-year lease deal is in the works

HYDE SQ.—Bella Luna Restaurant will move to The Brewery Complex—and the Milky Way Lounge & Lanes nightclub will close permanently—no later than about a year from now, according to co-owner Kathie Mainzer, who blamed a “gigantic rent increase.”

“We are making plans to move [Bella Luna],” Mainzer told the Gazette. “We hope we can land on our feet in a new location…We’re trying to look at this as a rebirth.”

The twin businesses at 403-405 Centre St. have been a Jamaica Plain institution for 15 years, anchoring the revitalization of Hyde Square.

Now, Mainzer said, Bella Luna/Milky Way is negotiating with landlord Mordechai Levin in hopes of keeping both businesses in place for one more year until the new space in The Brewery on Amory Street is ready. Staying any longer than that appears to be off the table.

“We’re happy for them, in all honesty,” Levin told the Gazette about Bella Luna finding a new place.

As for the rent increase, Levin and partner Terry Bruce said they have provided the business with bargain rates for years.

“[The rent] started more than low—well, well, well below market,” Levin said. “Even the rent that we offered [them] now is substantially below-market.”

Levin said he will seek a similar restaurant/nightclub to take over the spot. “We are talking to many good-quality [businesses] that operate this kind of establishment,” he said.

Mayor Thomas Menino’s office is attempting to mediate the short-term lease agreement, starting with a meeting scheduled for this week.

Menino personally sent a letter to Levin on March 31 that called for cooperative negotiations. The Mayor’s Office provided a copy of the letter to the Gazette.

“Bella Luna & the Milky Way have become iconic symbols of the Jamaica Plain community and a popular destination for diverse groups of people,” Menino wrote. “I consider the continued operations of Bella Luna & the Milky Way an integral part of the business community and the strength of the neighborhood.”

Mainzer, Levin and Bruce declined to comment on the short-term lease negotiations.

If the short-term lease doesn’t work out, both businesses will close much sooner. The current lease expires at the end of August, according to Levin. According to Menino’s letter, Bella Luna/Milky Way is seeking an extension through March, 2009.

Mainzer said the rent increase is coming with the end of Bella Luna/Milky Way’s original, 15-year lease.

“Our rent is going up 85 percent, from $13,000 a month to $24,000 a month,” she said. “We’d have to charge $60 for a pizza.”

Besides rent, Mainzer said, Bella Luna/Milky Way also pays about 80 percent of all building expenses under a “triple-net” lease. The business also pays for its own insurance and the right to park in the adjacent Hi-Lo lot. The Milky Way recently spent $80,000 to install a fire sprinkler system required by law.

“The landlord has made it clear he needs to get more revenue out of this space than he is,” she said.

Levin and Bruce acknowledged that, saying it is time to bring the rent closer to “parity” with the market after years of what Bruce called “subsidies” for the business.

Levin and former partner Stavros Frantzis invested heavily in renovating the formerly neglected building in the first place, Levin said, then offered bargain rent to let the business grow. (Frantzis is the Gazette’s landlord.)

And, Bruce said, “The space [Bella Luna/Milky Way is] moving to is not substantially lower” in the per-square-foot rental rate. It is cheaper, she said, only because it is a smaller space than the Hyde Square building.

But, Mainzer said, The Brewery rent will be based on a percentage of sales, not on a rate per square foot.

As for the move to The Brewery, Mainzer said, “We’re concluding negotiations on that space.” It would be a currently unused part of the complex built out specifically for Bella Luna. That is estimated to take about a year.

“It would be relocating Bella Luna Restaurant,” Mainzer said. “We’d have very light entertainment, nothing on the scale of what we do now [at Milky Way].” The entertainment would be something like a jazz brunch.

The new Bella Luna will focus on lunchtime crowds rather than its current dinner-hour and late-night business.

The Brewery at 284 Amory St. is owned by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), a nonprofit community development headquartered there. Mainzer is co-vice president of its board of directors, though she is on leave during lease negotiations.

The recently expanded Brewery Complex includes many small- and medium-sized businesses, including Boston Brewing Company, Mike’s Fitness and Ula Café.

“Like a lot of people, when I heard [Bella Luna/Milky Way] are going to be leaving Hyde Square, [I thought] that’s a big loss for the community,” JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thal told the Gazette. “They’ve been mainstays in that community for 15 years.”

“I’m glad they’re going to stay in JP,” Thal said, confirming that a deal to move to The Brewery is near completion. “I think [Bella Luna] will be a great addition to The Brewery Complex, which is becoming a great kind of community space.”

The decision to end the nightclub part of the business appears based in the difficulty of finding enough affordable space.

“We beat the bushes,” Mainzer said. “We looked at Mission Hill, Roslindale. JP is very expensive. We’re really thrilled to find a possible space [for Bella Luna] in Jamaica Plain.”

But Mainzer remains concerned about the future of the Hyde Square space—especially if it were to remain vacant for any length of time after Bella Luna/Milky Way leaves.

Levin and Bruce said they will seek a similar business for the spot, calling a mid-range restaurant/nightclub positive for the community and the local music scene.

“As more of these kinds of places are being transformed into upscale, baby boomer kinds of places, there are fewer for regular people, 30-something people,” Levin said.
Legacy

The owners of Bella Luna/Milky Way—Mainzer, Downs, Charlie Rose and Pierre Apollon—had roots in community activism before starting the business. They have often spoken of the business as another form of that activism.

Levin has been known for transforming the community with his efforts as well. The biggest examples are Jackson Square’s Stop & Shop supermarket, Martha Eliot Health Center and JP Plaza mall.

Bella Luna opened in 1993 in the former home of Los Violines, a nightclub with a reputation for attracting open drug-dealing and violence. The restaurant brought new life to the key spot in the heart of Hyde Square.

In 1999, the business expanded into a long-vacant basement bowling alley next door with the Milky Way, an unusual combination of nightclub and candlepin bowling. Levin and Frantzis had refurbished the space, which involved tracking down a candlepin equipment expert.

Bella Luna/Milky Way has since become a community institution, holding a steady stream of local fund-raisers, diverse performances and gatherings of powerful elected officials. When arsonists terrorized the neighborhood in recent years, city officials chose the Milky Way as the place to hold an informational meeting. When Sal DiMasi, speaker of the state House of Representatives, visited JP, Bella Luna/Milky Way is where he did his glad-handing. The influential local group Neighbors for Neighbors held its first organizing meeting at the Milky Way a few years ago, and continues to meet there.

“Now we’re victims of our own success,” Mainzer said. “We’ve made Hyde Square a desirable location. The whole city has really benefited from our efforts.”