Just before Tuesday’s City Council meeting, tenants and volunteers of the city-owned Telegraph Channing Mall rallied on the steps of Old City Hall to demand rent relief.
The protest came after months of exchange between the city and long-term tenants of the mall, which include Revolution Books, Michelle’s Yogurt and Sweets, Cheese ‘n’ Stuff and Moe’s Flowers. After the issue was introduced to the city in September, Mayor Tom Bates directed Deputy City Manager William Rogers to meet with the mall’s business owners to smooth out issues.
City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said in an email that individual meetings have been scheduled with tenants except Revolution Books, which has not yet confirmed the meeting. The city will begin work on significant improvements to the mall this summer, Chakko said.
About 11 protesters held signs reading “bad landlord” and “rent reduction now,” along with graphs showing data of rent increases to explain their efforts to the public and City Council members.
Staff and volunteers of Revolution Books said that little has changed since September and that tenants have yet to receive rent relief since they first brought the issue to light.
In addition to allegations that the city has not provided significant rent reduction for long-term tenants, protesters alleged that the city is perpetuating long-term vacancies and that it hired a commercial property management company without consultation.
The mall contains several vacancies, and the only new tenant pays almost 40 percent less than the tenant across the hall, according to a press release from Revolution Books.
“The solution shouldn’t be to bleed the existing tenants for every dollar,” said Reiko Redmonde, a manager at the bookstore. “Rent the whole mall, and do it fairly for everyone who’s in there.”
According to Chakko, rents are negotiated based on factors such as location within the mall and improvements that the applicant is willing to make.
Sam Juha, owner of Cheese ‘n’ Stuff, described the mall’s conditions as “miserable” because factors such as dark lighting, needed paint jobs and vacancies. He also said the city is losing revenue from vacant spaces.
One of the mall’s long-term tenants — Durant Shoe Repair — recently closed up shop. Staff of Revolution Books said unless substantial steps are taken to relieve rent in the mall, its own survival could be threatened.
“As a city manager, this may be one of their routine decisions, routine paperwork. But as a small merchant, it’s a life-or-death situation,” said Charles Lee, owner of Michelle’s Yogurt and Sweets.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes the mall, said he understands the frustrations of business owners. He said providing a comprehensive plan that addresses why there are differing rent rates between new and long-term tenants will be key to solving the mall’s problems.