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Downtown restaurant to close over lease dispute
[June 02, 2007]

Downtown restaurant to close over lease dispute

(New Haven Register (New Haven, CT) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jun. 2--NEW HAVEN -- The popular downtown restaurant Roomba will close and vacate its Chapel Street location this month because its landlord, Yale University Properties, will not renew its lease amid a four-year legal battle with the business' owners involving a separate property.

Suzette and Arturo Franco-Camacho, the husband and wife who opened the nuevo Latino restaurant at 1044 Chapel St. in 1999, received a letter Thursday from Bruce Alexander, Yale's vice president for New Haven and state affairs, saying the restaurant must vacate by July 1, Suzette Franco-Camacho said.

Alexander's office referred inquires to university spokesman Tom Conroy, who confirmed that University Properties, Yale's commercial real estate arm, has not renewed Roomba's lease beyond this month.

The restaurant has been without a formal lease, instead paying rent month-to-month to Yale, since March 2005. Since then, Yale has offered the Franco-Camachos opportunities to sign a two-year lease and the couple has declined, Conroy said. The landlord tried and had hoped to reach an agreement that would keep Roomba open, he said.

But Suzette Franco-Camacho said she and her husband were offered one "unreasonable" lease and "we never got to the point of negotiating a mutually agreeable lease." The proposed lease would have prohibited the couple from opening another downtown restaurant, meaning they could not have opened Bespoke last fall a block away at 266 College St.

The lease troubles, she said, have nothing to do with Roomba but rather are related to a legal battle between Yale and the Franco-Camachos involving property adjacent to Bespoke, which features upscale American cuisine.

"We've been hopeful that we would be able to sit down and reach (a decision) agreeable to them," Franco-Camacho said of the Bespoke dispute. But "there was always an underlying threat" that Yale would evict the couple from the Roomba space if the Bespoke matter was not settled, she said.

For the past four years, the Franco-Camachos and Yale have been arguing in court over who owns a walkway and shed behind the Bespoke building. Both claim ownership. The couple has been using the 12-foot-by-7-foot shed as storage and office space for several years.

The couple owns the building in which Bespoke is located, and lives above the restaurant. They bought it a year ago and had leased it from its previous owner for three years before that, Franco-Camacho said.

The litigation surrounding the walkway and shed is pending, with a housing court judge slated to visit the disputed site later this month, she said. Well-known local lawyer Hugh F. Keefe of New Haven-based Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante is representing the couple.

Conroy acknowledged that it is "certainly not feasible" for Yale to have a good working relationship with the Franco-Camachos at the Roomba site when it is in litigation with them over the Bespoke site.

"We are quite perplexed as to why they are disputing our ownership" of the walkway and shed, Conroy said.

Meanwhile, as the court battle continues, the couple is determining when to close Roomba. Though they must vacate by July 1, they likely will have to close the doors about two weeks before that to clear out the 2,300-square-foot space, Franco-Camacho said.

She said the couple will employ as many of Roomba's 23 workers at Bespoke as they can. Bespoke now has 30 employees.

Also, to preserve the spirit of Roomba, the couple will offer a Latin-inspired menu in a new lounge opening in the basement of Bespoke, Franco-Camacho said. While they are "heartbroken" to close Roomba, they must now focus on rebuilding and retaining the customer base they built there, she said.

"As upset as we are, we're proud of what we've done here for the past eight years," she said.

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