Decodance Club - the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock

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Ever been clubbing at Decodance, Cape Town’s club for older rockers who like their music more Led Zeppelin than Lady Gaga? The club at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, where that wonderful organic market takes place each Saturday? The club that runs a sports bar, where guys bored with being dragged around cheese stalls can slip off to watch a game over a pint? You’ve never noticed the place! Well – you’ve already grasped an important element of this story. The owner of Decodance club, in the basement of the Standard Mills silo at The Old Biscuit Mill Complex, Cape Town, accuses his landlords of obstructing his business

Decodance owner Stephen Leith claims he’s being unfairly forced out of the Old Biscuit Mill, and he’s pointing an angry finger at its high-profile owner-developers, Nick Ferguson and Jody Aufrichtig. He’s freaked out enough to be taking them to court, with accusations flying that the duo are intent on ruining his business. Ferguson and Aufrichtig made a name for themselves a few years back by buying a string of properties in Long Street, among them the New Space Theatre, the old Metropole Hotel (now Grand Daddy Hotel), and the Daddy Long Legs Hotel. They’ve received plenty of plaudits for saving bits of Cape Town’s heritage – though not everyone is completely enamoured. One Long Street landlord alleges that the run on property there has led to inflated rents and the loss of the street’s Bohemian character.

When Ferguson and Aufrichtig bought the old Pyott’s Building, and transformed it into the Old Biscuit Mill – a collection of designer/speciality shops and offices, which houses an organic market on Saturdays – they also asked Leith, then a full-time property broker, to find them a night-club tenant. After thinking long and hard, the old rocker decided it was time to go back into the nightclub game and cater to the crowd who prefer rock to trance.

Leith’s quite a character: after dropping out of school in standard six, he ended up working in the music industry, but lost everything in 1994 when a club he ran in Durban failed. Virtually penniless, he moved to Cape Town and lived for a while in a garage, before resurrecting himself as a property broker, specialising in nightclubs, restaurants and the like.

Thus it was that, in December 2005, Leith signed a three-year lease for a basement in a building that was once a mill and is now a piece of national heritage. On 1 July 2006 Decodance opened its doors.

Leith claims that it was understood that, as the only tenant operating at night, he would, after hours, be able to use all the parking – and free of charge. This wasn’t spelt out in the lease, but Leith says it was implicit in the provision that reads: “Parking paid for is rented from 06h00 to 18h30 on a daily basis”.

Access to plenty of safe parking was of great concern, because, says Leith, Woodstock in those days was pretty dodgy (some say it still is), and there was no way a club would succeed if the crowd coming to shake their stuff had to park on the street. Leith claims that the developers subsequently made the same promise to a tenant who was opening a restaurant called Shout (now B-Lounge), but there was still enough parking for the two businesses.

Later that year (2006) the landlord/developers began operating the now famous Saturday organic market. Leith saw an opportunity to make some money by operating as a sports bar during the day on Saturdays, and invested in a large screen TV and the necessary contracts. But then, in August 2008, the landlords decided to have a large tent erected for the market each Saturday – right outside Decodance.

The tent, which houses the decor section of the market, totally obscures Leith’s signage and access to Decodance is completely blocked. To add insult to injury, says Leith, the developers then allowed an informal bar to operate within a metre of his premises. Worse was to come – the tent started going up on Friday nights, so the nightclub business was badly affected too. (After vociferous complaints, the landlords agreed to erect the tent only on Saturday mornings.) Leith estimates that he’s losing some R14,000 in turnover each Saturday.

On 1 December 2008 Leith renewed his lease, despite being in serious dispute with the landlords. His renewal letter was, it must be said, unusual. Leith began by saying “I write in the sincere hope that the various problems that I am experiencing as your tenant can be adequately resolved between us as respected businessmen” – and followed that with over seven pages of gripes. He concluded by exercising his option to renew the lease for a further three years.

But things just got messier and murkier: The landlords first claimed that Leith was in breach of his lease and that his renewal was invalid, then there were talks of a steep increase in rental, followed by disputes as to whether Leith’s evening patrons could park free of charge.

A meeting involving attorneys took place in July 2009, but, Leith claims, although the landlords agreed to deal with the issues he raised, they took no action. As a result Leith resorted to litigation – he’s applied for a court order to prevent the landlords from erecting any kind of obstruction in front of Decodance, restrain them from obstructing his signage or business, provide free parking after 6.30pm, give him full and beneficial use and occupation of premises, and declare that renewal of lease was properly exercised. The matter is, of course, being defended.

This is all pretty run-of-the-mill, except that Leith is claiming that dirt tactics are being used – for instance that Ferguson and Aufrichtig overstated the floor area in his lease, thus causing him to pay a higher service charge than was necessary since day one. He says that the landlords are staging all sorts of evening events at the Old Biscuit Mill, like school parties that involve underage drinking, violence, and nasty bouncers. And these events mean there is no parking (free or otherwise) for Leith’s patrons.

He also complains that, though the large tent outside his club is now being erected on Saturday mornings, smaller tents go up every Friday – thus gobbling up the parking space. There’s more. Leith claims that the landlords ripped him off by R80,000 a few years back when they refused to pay his commission on one of two deals he secured involving a tenant called Cape to Cuba.

In short, says Leith, although Ferguson and Aufrichtig have the image of two nice young guys who saved the city, they ruthlessly do whatever it takes to get what they want. He cites the example of a woman who had a club called The Lounge: he says that when the landlords wanted her out, they dumped all her stuff in the street and removed the floorboards to make the place uninhabitable, thereby thwarting an interdict the woman obtained.

All in all, Leith believes the duo want him out so that they can develop the part of the building he now occupies into offices.

Approached for comment landlord Ferguson described Leith to noseweek as “a squatter”, claiming that his lease was not renewed beyond 30 June 2009, and that their lawyers are taking steps to evict him. He could barely disguise his contempt for Leith.

Ferguson also pointed out, in an email to noseweek, that, had Leith “exercised his option to rent and we had increased the rent by 10% that would have made his rent R6388. [..] we proposed the rent to go up to R9950 (R41/sqm – the average rate in the Old Biscuit Mill is R60/sqm)”.

Ferguson also claims that no agreement was made concerning parking – “in his lease, verbally or any other way”. And the tent? “The tent is outside his rented premises and not part of what he rented.” What of the smaller tents? “Mr Leith is not renting the open space nor the parking.”

Ferguson denied that the area of the premises rented to Leith had been overstated. As regards the evening events that Leith is complaining about, Ferguson declared: “We had approximately five evening events over the last year, in space not rented by Leith. It is our prerogative to rent our space.” He denied that Leith had been short-changed on a deal involving Cape to Cuba: “Why would Mr Leith bring this up more than two years after Cape to Cuba moved in – I am sure he would have approached the courts to recover money if it were due.”

He did not deny that they have plans for the building: “We submitted plans about three years ago to renovate the space above him; these plans were approved by council. We are not going ahead with this building at the moment – it is not the right time to do it.” Ferguson ended by telling noseweek that “the credibility and education of your people making these claims is seriously low – Mr Leith has a Standard Six education”. (Apparently the developers are in the process of doing a huge, very lucrative deal with government; maybe it’s time they were told the President achieved a Standard Two.)

So, no real comment from the landlords on the claims regarding the evening events, nor about the way in which the tenant of The Lounge was treated. In fact, little attempt to correct any impression of some pretty hard-arsed landlords, or an inference that they either want Leith out so that they can develop the building, or that they are happy to have him but only if he pays a rental that is more in line with what others are paying.

All in all, noseweek doesn’t fancy the prospects of Cape Town’s grey-haired rockers keeping their turf at the Old Biscuit Mill, but we’ll keep you posted.

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