Luma on Park seeks to reclaim prime Winter Park location in dueling lawsuits with ex-landlord

·4 min read

The pandemic-shuttered restaurant Luma on Park wants to reclaim the coveted spot it occupied for 15 years along the main stretch of Winter Park’s signature dining and retail district as part of an acrimonious legal battle with the owner of the Park Avenue property.

The dispute between Luma and its former landlord, BFC Park Avenue, LLC, is the subject of two lawsuits in Orange County circuit court that could determine the fate of the 8,000-square-foot space at the intersection of East New England Avenue.

BFC Park Avenue is suing for breach of contract, claiming in court documents that Luma didn’t pay six months of rent before it moved out in September.

The company is also seeking a protective order, alleging that Luma’s representatives harassed its new tenant, an upcoming Mediterranean restaurant named AVA, in an attempt to learn about its lease.

In its lawsuit against Bill Battaglia, head of BFC Park Avenue, Luma said it wasn’t required to pay rent early in the pandemic because of an “Act of God” clause in its contract triggered by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stay-at-home order.

The company also said Battaglia offered an “outrageous and unreasonable rent proposal” in renewal negotiations that equated to more than a 90% increase. Luma is seeking at least $5 million in damages from what it considers an “improper ouster.”

Though AVA is slated to open this fall, Luma is seeking an injunction to prevent Battaglia from renting the property to a new tenant.

Rent dispute heightened by pandemic

When Luma closed down, the company in its announcement said it wasn’t able to reach a “reasonable rent structure” with its landlord, during a time when many restaurants sought accommodations amid the economic fallout caused by COVID-19.

Management company Battaglia Group countered in a statement that it offered a “carefully considered rent relief” option to Luma’s lease, but the company decided to walk away.

Despite the different takes on Luma’s exit, both companies publicly wished each other well.

Luma said it already had offers to open up another restaurant at a nearby location. BFC Park Avenue said the phone “began ringing off the hook” with interest from other companies that heard Luma left.

But court records show the landlord sued Luma about a week before the restaurant posted a final goodbye to patrons on Facebook with a staff photo, marking its 15th anniversary.

In a statement on Thursday, BFC Park Avenue said Luma didn’t pay rent from April 2020 to September 2020 and owed more than $180,000 when it turned the space back over to the landlord.

“Luma’s lawsuit is revisionist history which ignores its own actions and poor business decisions,” BFC Park Avenue said in the statement released by its attorney, Michael Sasso.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, Luma received a $410,300 loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which BFC Park Avenue said in its complaint could have been partially used to pay rent.

Luma reported to the federal agency that it would use the money for payroll expenses and to retain 60 jobs.

Before COVID-19 hit, renewal negotiations had stalled for two years. Luma said in court filings that Battaglia assured the restaurant’s owners at the height of the pandemic that the company would “do what it could” about rent and both parties “would get through it together.”

Luma claims in its lawsuit, which was filed last month, that the restaurant is a victim of turmoil among the Battaglia family. The company accused Bill Battaglia of being “laser-focused” on forcing its restaurant to leave as a way to assert his power over shared business holdings.

Battaglia did not respond to a request for comment. In the statement from BFC Park Avenue, the company said Luma is “trying to capitalize upon a family dispute in an effort to disparage the landlord.”

The Luma suit also names Foundry Commercial as a defendant, alleging the property management company was used in Battaglia’s “destructive and deceptive scheme.” Luma said Foundry representatives had the locks changed without informing Luma’s staff and “arranged for the entry of a false tax lien against Luma.”

Foundry spokesperson Lauren Leetun said the company’s attorneys will file its response in court and declined to comment further.

lgarza@orlandosentinel.com