Tell People About Our Cause!

February 13, 2002


Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Building?


Only a fool or a columnist — the two are often interchangeable — would choose sides in a dispute over New York real estate.

Each party to such a dispute usually swears high and low that it alone is on the side of the angels. Almost always, there are hidden and perilous crannies. Property fights in this city are like onions: peel back one layer of argument and what you find is another layer.

So let's tread somewhat lightly in a bruising battle between the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and some neighbors who are resisting its attempts to take over their building on Orchard Street.

If you have never been to the museum, at 97 Orchard Street, you are missing a Lower Manhattan gem, for it offers a glimpse into New York tenement life as it was in the early part of the last century. Walk up the five flights and wander through the small apartments, and you can sense how immigrant families like the Baldizzis, Rogarshevskys and Confinos lived after they got off the boat. They were part of a Lower East Side that obviously exists no more.

Now, 14 years after it came into being, the museum says it must have more space for several reasons: to install an elevator for the handicapped, under the Americans With Disabilities Act; to more than double the number of visitors, now maxed out at about 90,000 a year; and to solidify its partnership on immigration projects with Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

"We're turning people away every weekend," said Ruth J. Abram, the museum's president. "We have to turn school groups away. We'd like to open it up to all the people who'd like to get in."

To do that, the museum wants to take over its virtual twin, the building next door at 99 Orchard Street. The problem is that the owners of No. 99 do not want to sell, at least not at a price that the museum has been willing to pay. One of the landlords, Louis Holtzman, talks about his family's connection to the 138-year-old building, going back to when his grandfather bought it around 1910.

"People tell me, `You can make a lot of money,' " Mr. Holtzman said. "But what happens if you don't want to sell?"

Stymied, the museum has shifted gears, asking the Empire State Development Corporation, a state agency, to condemn No. 99. The aim is to let the museum acquire the building under the laws of eminent domain, which authorize the taking of private property for a perceived greater public good — with compensation for the landlord, of course, and with any tenants relocated. The procedure is familiar. This newspaper, for example, is asking the development corporation to do the same in its behalf so it can build a new headquarters on Eighth Avenue.

The signs suggest that the state agency is sympathetic to the museum, though a decision may not come until spring.

"Eminent domain scares people," Ms. Abram acknowledged. "It brings up images of the big guy versus the small." Nonetheless, she said, "We do need this building." To which Mr. Holtzman responds: "You buy a building. You want to build a business. Should the state come in and take your business?"

Now get set for layers of charges and countercharges.

THE museum says that Mr. Holtzman and his partner, Peter Liang, did serious damage to No. 97 with construction work on their own building. It has questioned whether Mr. Holtzman is even an owner. In turn, Mr. Holtzman and his wife, Mimi, have cast the museum as a predator and Ms. Abram as a politically connected arriviste intent on making them look bad.

This might be just another New York bag of onions if not for one thing.

Since last summer, the Holtzmans have rented 14 renovated apartments in their building. A typical price is $1,600 a month for 375 square feet. The Baldizzis and Rogarshevskys may not have earned that much in a year. This, however, is 21st-century New York, where that kind of rent is considered absurd but not unreasonable.

Those tenants help explain why eminent domain is opposed by the local community board, No. 3, and by the neighborhood's lawmakers in Albany, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator Thomas K. Duane.

The renters may not be the tired, poor and huddled masses of yesteryear. But there they are all the same. For some, the question is basic: to show how people used to live on the Lower East Side, should the museum be able to evict people who actually live on the Lower East Side?

Ms. Abram says yes, and hopes the state will do the same. But she agrees that "it does seem ironic."

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