Park Plaza Gardens, one of the area’s older, more venerable restaurants and a fixture of Winter Park’s Park Avenue, remains closed, a “temporary” shuttering that is now in its ninth month. Long a choice of area residents as a special occasion restaurant, Park Plaza Gardens is especially missed at this time of year as a destination of holiday dinners, lunches with friends and parties.
And while the owners of the restaurant still contend that the closing is only temporary, there is little chance that it will reopen in the foreseeable future. In fact, it is likely to pass the March 7 anniversary of its last day of service and could remain dark for much, much longer. And the reason is, well, rats.
Rats and water intrusion, the latter mainly, say the business owners, from leakage from the rooms of the Park Plaza Hotel overhead. In addition, there have been instances of sewage seeping up from floor drains in the bar area of the restaurant.
“It’s bad,” said Bob Case, president of Demetree Global, speaking on behalf of the company’s owner, Mary Demetree, who has owned Park Plaza Gardens for the past 18 years. Case, who spoke in a conference room at Demetree Real Estate Services in Winter Park, said the condition of the building had deteriorated so much that Demetree has initiated a lawsuit against the building’s owner, Park Avenue Plaza of Winter Park, a limited partnership that despite the name is based in South Florida. The building’s owner has filed a countersuit.
As Case said, it’s bad.
Park Plaza Gardens had a wakeup call about its pest control efforts in October of 2013 when a routine restaurant inspection by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation found numerous high priority violations that included dead and live cockroaches. In one particularly descriptive passage in the report, the inspector recalled finding a roach enjoying a french fry on the floor of the restaurant.
The restaurant was shut down but allowed to reopen just several hours later after the problems were corrected.
Case said that after that incident the managers realized their regular pest control company wasn’t doing a proper extermination, so they called in another pest control expert. But that inspector said he couldn’t enter into a contract to treat just the restaurant space unless he could have access to the entire building.
Park Plaza Gardens is housed in a building that is approaching its centennial. There are six tenants leasing space in the two-story structure. Besides the restaurant and the 27-room hotel, there is a spa, a jewelry store and some boutique clothing shops. Because of the proximity of the businesses to one another and the tendency of rodents and other pests not to confine themselves to one location, it was assumed that the other businesses were also affected — or infested. An employee of a local pest control company contacted for this article, but not familiar with the Park Plaza Gardens building or the specific issues there, said that in general it would be very unlikely that rats would confine themselves to only one tenant’s space.
“I took over the store in July and I haven’t seen anything,” said Frank Hamm, general manager of Lucky Brand, a national retailer of denim wear based in California. He said that he had heard reports from some of the other workers at the store that they had heard activity in the walls in the past, but that a service request was put in through Lucky Brand’s corporate office and there hadn’t been any evidence since. Behind the building, inside a white plastic fence with the gate ajar, at least four black rat poison stations could be seen on a recent Saturday.
“No, we don’t have a rodent problem,” said Cissie Spang, owner of Park Plaza Hotel, “which is probably a miracle.”
Paige Blackwelder, one of the owners of Tuni’s, a women’s clothing store in the corner space, said that she had had some water issues but, “They’ve fixed everything and it’s no longer an issue at the moment.” As for vermin, “We’ve not had any rodents,” she said.
Hearing that made Liz Sheppard laugh. “Trust me,” she said of the neighbors, “they’ve had rats over there.” Sheppard is the owner of Bebe’s, a clothing store for children and women that occupies a storefront between the restaurant and the entrance to the hotel. She said that there have been numerous discussions among the shop owners about the condition of the building but that “we’re not supposed to say anything.”
“Nobody’s talking because they don’t want a bad reputation,” said Sheppard. “Everyone is deathly afraid to bring bad publicity to Park Avenue.”
But Sheppard is talking. She said she has seen evidence of rats in her space. One died inside a wall in a back room and the smell was so bad that the room had to be sealed off with tape around the doors to keep the stink out of the front of the store. A local company that specializes in removing animals from homes and businesses had to punch holes in the wall to remove the smelly rat, she said.
But Sheppard has a bigger issue with water intrusion.
“I’ve been in this building 30 years now,” she said, “and probably during that 30 years, I've probably had 25 floods, some to the extent of moving me out.” With each flood, she said, the building owner would blame the hotel and the hotel would blame the building owner. One flood, said Sheppard, caused $250,000 in damage. But with neither the hotel or the landlord assuming responsibility, Sheppard turned to her insurance company each time.
Until two years ago when her insurance was cancelled. She eventually found another insurer, for triple what she was paying her previous company in premiums, she said, but it excluded water damage claims. And so a recent flood that caused extensive damage forced her to hire a lawyer.
She was surprised, she said, when the property manager came in recently with a check to cover the cost of some christening gowns that were ruined by water damage.
But that isn’t likely to stop the occurrences of water raining down from the spaces above the shop.
“Pipe breaks happen,” said Spang. “We have a maintenance guy who’s here every day” and stays on top of any issues, she said. “Although we have an occasional problem with a broken pipe, we don’t have the problems they have,” she said of of the restaurant.
“I think the landlord has done everything he can to make it right,” Spang said of the hotel’s issues.
Reached by phone, Bernie Arribas, property manager for the building, said he had no comment at this time.
Both Case and Sheppard say they have been told by plumbers that the building needs to be repiped. And there may also be electrical issues to address. Case said that after the restaurant closed the managers noticed the electric bill was higher than they expected it should be. It turned out that for some time — “I don’t know how long, multiple, multiple years,” he said — another tenant’s utility was tied into Park Plaza Gardens’ meter. “We’ve been providing electricity to the jewelry store in that building.”
In the meantime, the restaurant remains closed. The front windows were recently papered over; Sheppard said it was done at her insistence because the space looked abandoned. And of course, all of the restaurant’s employees are gone. Some, according to Michelle Heatherly, director of marketing, were placed with other businesses, including Lake Nona Country Club.
“We kept a skeleton managerial crew for months after the closure,” said Case. Bram Fowler, a well known local chef had just been brought on a little more than a month before the closure to reinvigorate the menu. “We didn’t want him to not have a paycheck and we didn’t want to lose him,” he said. “At this point everyone is gone, everyone has moved on.”
Since the closing in March, the restaurant has continued to pay the rent, said Case, however the monies have been put into an escrow account with an attorney. (Now that the lawsuit and countersuit have been filed, the rent is sent to the court.)
“We did not intend to close permanently,” he said. “If so, we certainly would not have continued to pay rent; we would have negotiated our way out of the lease.
“Part of the real frustration is that our brand is absolutely connected to the location,” he said. It’s not Park Plaza Gardens if it’s in another location. So it’s truly frustrating to see that damage to the brand.”
Even if the issues and disputes were somehow resolved today — which is highly unlikely — Case estimates he would need a minimum of 90 days before opening just to work on marketing issues.
Getting the physical space ready will be another matter. Besides dealing with the rodents and the water and sewer intrusions, areas of mold, shown in photos attached to the original lawsuit, will also have to be addresses.
Although it has had its critical ups and downs over the years, Park Plaza Gardens has been a steady fixture on Park Avenue since the days when it was one of the few fine dining restaurants in Central Florida, serving what was often referred to as “continental cuisine.” Its atrium dining room under a skylight offered sunlit lunches and a romantic atmosphere for dinners. The bar was a favorite meeting place for locals, and the sidewalk patio a reliable people-watching spot.
It would be hard to imagine Park Avenue without Park Plaza Gardens, but it will have to do without it for some time to come.