LAKEVIEW — Avenue Tavern quietly closed its doors late last year after a months-long battle over rent payments led to the eviction of the beloved Detroit Lions bar.
The tavern was kicked out of its 2916 N. Broadway space Dec. 23, ending a dispute between owner Mark Camilleri and landlord Sam Goldman, according to Cook County Court records.
The two sides shared vastly different accounts of what led up to closing the doors of the bar after nearly 20 years. Camilleri described it as a breakdown of negotiations while a representative for Goldman said Camilleri hadn’t paid rent in months.
The two sides settled the case with Camilleri agreeing to pay $81,000 in past-due rent and other costs, according to court records.
“It’s devastating,” Camilleri said. “That bar meant so much to so many people. Do you know how many people met their partners at Avenue Tavern? A ton.”
Camilleri opened Avenue Tavern 18 years ago as a sports bar for his alma mater, Michigan State University, and a safe space for LGBTQ people to hang out.
“Avenue Tavern was the kind of bar where the younger gays would take their parents because they felt safe here and knew their parents would feel comfortable, too,” Camilleri said. “Everybody was welcome there.”
Finances began to get tight during the pandemic, as happened at many businesses. Camilleri said he wanted to work out reduced rent payments to help ride out the worst of the pandemic. His lease was set to expire in July 2020.
This is where the two sides offer conflicting accounts of what happened. Clint Sabin, a representative for Goldman, said the bar stopped paying its $6,375-a-month rent in February 2020 and Camilleri was demanding free rent for the duration of the pandemic.
Camilleri denied missing March’s rent and showed Block Club a copy of a rent check for March that cleared. He said he stopped paying in April because the two parties had begun negotiating a new lease. Instead, he put his rent money into a separate bank account to assure Goldman he had enough to pay while negotiations continued, Camilleri said.
“We started negotiating and I wasn’t going to pay full rent because he was going to give me a discount for COVID, so why would I pay April through July in full rent?” Camilleri said. “I put it in escrow while we negotiated.”
The two nearly worked out a new deal in June, when Camilleri signed a letter of intent to modify and extend his lease, according to documents he provided to Block Club. Under those terms, Camilleri was going to pay $1,000 in rent for April through July, then discounted rent, gradually increasing from $3,500 to $4,250 a month through Feb. 28, 2021.
However, the letter of intent included a personal guarantee provision that Camilleri would pay Goldman $83,950 if he filed bankruptcy, he said.
“The only issue we were sticking on was that personal guarantee because we felt like in COVID it was a very difficult number to swallow,” Camilleri said.
By October, negotiations had stalled, Avenue Tavern’s original lease had expired and Goldman still hadn’t received any rent money, so the landlord moved forward with eviction, according to Sabin and court records.
Sabin claims the total amount in missed rent was $116,000, but the two parties settled for $81,000, equaling more than a year of typical rent payments for the space. Camilleri said that amount included attorney’s fees and other costs.
Camilleri denied he was behind in payments, saying they never worked out an agreement for rent payment.
“We didn’t owe a dime,” Camilleri said. “It was a breakdown in rental negotiations.”
Goldman said he asked the court for possession of the space, which was granted in December.
“This is a family-owned building, and we made numerous offers to renegotiate the expired lease with the owner of the bar, including an 84 percent discount in their rent for the expected duration of the pandemic,” Goldman said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, our offers were mostly met with silence and continued non-payment, while our family was still responsible for the upkeep, property taxes, mortgage, utilities and other expenses.”
Camilleri said he still had years’ worth of possessions, including the bar’s neon sign, inside the building when he lost access to the property. He said he was sad to see the bar close, but he’s open to reopening Avenue Tavern at another location.
“I wouldn’t rule out another Avenue Tavern,” Camilleri said. “It just has to be a great deal.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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