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The Foward

Immigration Museum Called Bad Neighbor In Expansion Battle



When the Lower East Side Tenement Museum opened in 1988 on Orchard Street in Manhattan, next-door neighbor Lou Holtzman, a sound engineer, volunteered to provide a soundtrack. Using tapes from his vaults, Mr. Holtzman compiled an exciting montage of sounds: the clopping of horse hooves, the cries of street vendors and the singing of his father, a Cantor who had lived on Orchard Street his entire life.

Nowadays, however, Mr. Holtzman's relationship with the museum is hitting a sour note.

The Tenement Museum, which displays recreations of five historic tenement apartment, is seeking to acquire The property next door - a five-story building owned by Mr. Holtzman - through eminent domain, which enables the government to force a sale if it is deemed for the public good. The museum hopes to expand into the building, 99 Orchard Street, even though Mr. Holtzman and the 14 other families living there would be displaced. The expansion is part of a plan to secure a partnership with the National Parks Service-administered- Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, bringing thousands more people to the museum But Mr. Holtzman wiII not be budged.

"They're make-believe history," said Mr. Holtzman, motioning to the museum next door. "We are history."

Now, Mr.Holtzman said, Lower East Side history is being threatened by the very people who purport to preserve it.

"Ask anybody if Louie Holtzman is a part of this neighborhood," Mr. Holtzman told the Forward. "My dad did Yiddish theater as a kid. Down the street, my parents Shtupped and fell in love at the Loews Delancey. My grandfather owned a dairy restaurant where the OTB is today. My son, now 24, went to the same public school as his grandmother did, P.S. 42."

According to the museum, which sees some 90,000 visitors each year, the partnership with the National Parks Service would bring 200,000 to 250,000 more visitors annually to the museum, which is already at capacity. "We turn people away everyday," said museum founder and president Ruth Abram. "People come here and are touched by the experience. It's the majority experience.

In its current state, the Tenement Museum also is unable to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations. With the purchase of Mr. Holtzman's building, "We can build an elevator next door," said museum spokeswoman Robin Marcato, adding that the access will benefit the "huge amount of senior groups who won't walk up but will walk down."

The museum's plans for 99 Orchard Street include creating classroom space and a series of "dotouch" apartments, enabling children to interact with the exhibits.

"Eminent domain happens all the time - without it we wouldn't have the Seward Park Library, Lincoln Center and Rockefeller Center,", Ms. Marcato said. "Eminent domain is never fully supported, even if it is for a wonderful cause."

Eminent domain does not sit well with Mr. Holtzman, who occupies an apartment in the building with his wife. "You use eminent domain for things like aqueducts and subways," said Mr. Holtzman, who owns the building with a partner, Peter Liang. "A museum? It's outrageous."

Although Ms. Abram said that the museum is a "local enterprise," hiring "local, multi-lingual guides" and enticing visitors to spend money on the block, Mr. Holtzman scoffs. "People from Jockstrap, Neb., don't give a damn about the neighborhood," he said. "They come here and leave."

In 1999, when the museum first began exploring its partnership with the National Parks Service, Mr. Holtzman spurned an offer of $725,000 for his building from Tenement Museum board secretary John Samuelson. He also refused the museum's second offer of $1 million in cash. Mr. Holtzman countered by asking for $6 million for his building, the museum said.

Further complicating the issue is that last July Mr. Holtzman completed - at an undisclosed cost - extensive renovations to his building, which houses a large Chinese restaurant, Congee Village, and 15 renovated apartments renting for about $1,600 a month.

The renovations have added another layer in the drama: The museum charges that Mr. Holtzman's construction altered the retaining wall of the museum, causing the building to shift. In a tour of the museum, Ms. Marcato showed the Forward cracks in walls and floors and windows that no longer fit properly - damage she said occurred during the past 14 months.

"It's amazing. This building survived so many years in perfect condition and it took modern times to do this," she said. Although Ms. Marcato said damage is not structural, "every time we patch the ,walls we take something away from" the museum, she said. "You'd think they'd see that, but they don't."

Mr. Holtzman vehemently denies that his renovations have anything to do with the damage next door, pointing to slopes and cracks in the museum's structure that he said had been around before the museum, when 97 Orchard Street was merely an abandoned building.

The museum has prepared a thick packet of documents challenging Mr. Holtzman's claims to the property on a variety of other fronts. These include a challenge to Mr. Holtzman's claim that members of his family have occupied the building for four generations, and that he violated regulations by creating in 1993 a commercial studio space in the building without a permit.

Mr. Holtzman denies the challenges, responding only to the 1993
charge, saying the complaint about commercial space was filed by a mentally ill brother of his recording studio partner.

Still, with the Empire State Development Corporation, a state sponsored economic development agency, backing the Tenement Museum, many believe the museum's acquisition of 99 Orchard Street is all but inevitable. A period to lodge objections with the development agency ends February 8, after which it will issue its decision. The dispute has divided residents of the Lower East Side, with both ty activists, local merchants and neighbors. The Housing Committee of Community Board 3, representing the Lower East Side neighborhood, has taken Mr. Holtzman's side. The full board recently passed a resolution stating that the museum's plans do not warrant use of eminent domain.

Mr. Holtzman and his wife, Mimi, consider the museum a Sort of
Johnny-come-lately to the historic fabric of Orchard Street. "The museum can't be historic," Mr. Holtzman said. ,You go to the Merchant House - it's historic, it's preserved as it was- That building - the old, rotting apartments - is historic? My parents never lived like that."

Ms. Marcato disputed his assertion. "There are buildings dedicated to the rich, the famous and the not-so-famous," she said. "There are many buildings dedicated to the pioneers out west. There's one building dedicated to urban pioneers and it's very sad that people don't see it as the treasure it is." 
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