THE NEW YORK OBSERVER
FEBRUARY 4, 2002
Tenement Museum Wants
The Tenement Next-Door
At a time when the city's biggest cultural institutions are all focused on expansion, the I0-year-old Lower East Side Tenement Museum's desire to do the same should be nothing more than a footnote. Instead, it's become a neighborhood scandal.
For the last several years, the Tenement Museum, at 97 Orchard Street, has been in a protracted dispute with its next-door neighbor, Lou Holtzman , the owner of a classic six-story brick tenement building at 99 Orchard Street very similar to the museum's. The trouble began in September 2000, when Mr. Holtzman paid for a much-needed renovation to his building, which his family has owned for four generations. The museum claimed that the work done next-door caused "irreparable harm" to its own I38-year-old building--specifically, that it had shifted floors and cracked the plaster on the shared wall between the two buildings. Under order of the Department of Buildings, Mr. Holtzman did further improvements, which were completed last June. But Museum administrators have continued a correspondence concerning what they allege to be a series of problems with the Department of Buildings and Mr. Holtzman's lawyer, including a July 2001 letter stating that the property's Certificate of Occupancy was not up to date.
The sub text of the entire dispute, according to Mr. Holtzman, is that he refused a $3 million offer by the museum to buy his building-and so the museum is trying to get it some other way. Ruth Abram, the museum's founder and president, argues that acquiring 99 Orchard Street would allow for an elevator shaft for handicap access---a crucial requirement in the museum's bid to cement a partnership with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island that would add the Tenement museum to the National Parks Service's official roster of federally administered tourist attractions in lower Manhattan.
With Mr. Holtzman unwilling to sell, Ms. Abram last summer found the Empire State Development Corporation willing to intercede and begin exploring the possibility of exercising eminent-domain laws to condemn 99 Orchard Street and deliver it to the museum The ESDC announced a 30-day public-comment period, which ends on Feb. 8, after which its board of directors will begin several weeks of deliberations about the property's status.
Community Board 3's full board meeting on Jan. 22, which included a heated debate on the museum's plans, was the second public hearing on the subject. Ms. Abram told the board that "guaranteeing wheelchair access to museum exhibits" was a chief aim of the museumís attempts to take over 99 Orchard Street. However, that issue was outweighed by concern for the 15 tenants currently living in the building and the bustling Chinese restaurant on the ground floor. A spokesman for the ESDC present at the meeting assured the board that the corporation would offer "a fair -market -value price" for the building and would help to relocate the residential tenants. Paul Lee, a Mott Street store owner and president of the 110 year-old Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, questioned whether the ESDC had forgotten how devastating the 9/11 attack was for the neighborhood. "We very much respect the museum," said Mr. Lee. "However, there are some live bodies in that building; there are some people with jobs in that building. We can't understand the state removing this restaurant or these tenants."
Added board member Harry Wieder, who is disabled himself, "The museum needs to deal with its access issues themselves."
The board voted down the museum's plan, following the lead of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, which held the first public hearing on Jan. 9.
The board's resolution contends that "eminent domain is not the appropriate vehicle" for the museum to stake its claim. The board is hopeful that their opposition will force the ESDC to reconsider its present course.
Said Mr. Holtzman: "We don't want to sell the building, We just want to get on with our lives."