Legal Sea Foods Sues Officials to Keep Its Prime Spot at Va.'s National Airport

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Legal Sea Foods and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority are headed to court Friday in an escalating legal spat over restaurant space at Reagan National Airport.

The Boston seafood chain says it is being pushed out after 12 years to make room for a Sam & Harry's steakhouse. The location is a prime spot in Terminal C, next to the boarding area for US Airways's popular northeastern corridor shuttles.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. Eastern District Court of Virginia in June, Legal Sea Foods is seeking a court order to stop the airport from closing the restaurant and an unspecified amount in damages, citing irreparable harm to Legal Sea Foods' brand name and reputation if the location is forced to close.

Legal Sea Foods, privately held and headquartered in Boston, has 30 locations nationally, including five in the Washington region. The National Airport restaurant employs 50.

Owner Roger Berkowitz says the problems started last year during lease negotiations with officials from Westfield Concessions Management, the Los Angeles-based company that oversees retail stores and restaurants at National and at Dulles International Airport. He said Westfield encouraged the seafood chain to spend $2.3 million to expand, primarily by taking over the space of a bookstore next door.

Berkowitz said he agreed to make the changes but insisted that the seafood chain pocket any construction savings. At the time, he said, construction costs were plummeting due to the weak economy.

The two sides also battled over the timing of the renovations, Berkowitz said. Westfield wanted construction to start this month. Legal balked, pressing to delay construction until after the high-volume summer traveling season.

The lease talks broke down. Within weeks, Berkowitz was reading an article in industry trade weekly Airport Revenue News that the airport had struck an agreement with Sam & Harry's -- for his space at National.

"It rubbed us the wrong way," Berkowitz said. "Every time they told us to jump, we jumped."

In the complaint, the seafood chain argues that the airports authority didn't follow its own contracting rules, which require it to set up competitive procedures for awarding contracts.

A spokeswoman for the authority declined to answer questions about the dispute because the case is now in court but said in a statement, "It is unfortunate that Legal Sea Foods has chosen to file a lawsuit in this matter and the airports authority will respond appropriately in court."

A spokeswoman at Westfield Concessions Management declined to comment. The judge in the case, Anthony J. Trenga, agreed to a motion last week to seal the airports authority's response in the case.

Legal Sea Foods is asking diners to sign a petition, which has generated more than 1,000 signatures, to keep the restaurant open. "We really want to stay there," Berkowitz said. "We think this has gone beyond reasonableness."

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