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Board 3 committee critical of museum expand plan

By: Jennifer Jensen January 16, 2002
Members of Community Board 3's housing committee last week "condemned the condemnation" of 99 Orchard St., claiming that the expansion of a private museum does not warrant an eminent-domain action by New York State.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is hoping to take over its neighbor, 99 Orchard St., through eminent domain by the state's Empire State Development Corporation. Museum officials have agreed to buy the building if the state succeeds in taking it over. Eminent domain is a process by which the government can force the sale of a private property if they believe it will result in the serving of the greater good of the public.

The building currently houses 15 apartments and the Congee Village Chinese restaurant, which employs about 40 people, according to the owner. If the state succeeds in taking over the property, the residential tenants will be relocated and the restaurant will have to leave. The building - a five-story, brick Italianate tenement - is owned by Lou Holtzman and Peter Liang, owner of Congee Village, which expanded into the building from its Allen St. location about a year ago.

In a proposal on the project, E.S.D.C. claims that the pending condemnation of 99 Orchard St. is necessary in order to allow for the Tenement Museum's expansion. Expanding the already-cramped museum will allow the state to move ahead with three-year-old plans to affiliate the Tenement Museum with two other important symbols of the city's immigrant history, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The Tenement Museum, at 97 Orchard St., is dedicated to telling the story of the living conditions of immigrant families living on the Lower East Side. In 1998, the Tenement Museum was officially linked with Ellis Island and "Lady Liberty," but the benefits of such an association - namely joint marketing and financial support from the National Parks Service - were put off because the museum is currently too small to accommodate the influx of tourists from those sites.

Ruth Abram, Tenement Museum director and founder, said at the C.B. 3 housing committee meeting that the condemnation is necessary because construction at 99 Orchard has damaged the museum. Independent engineers hired by both the museum and Liang and Holtzman, determined that a crack in the Tenement Museum's wall was caused by construction at 99 Orchard St., according to documents obtained by The Villager.

"The crack is still wrapped like a sick patient in a 24-hour monitor," said Abram, in speech punctuated periodically by snickering from the audience or by committee members who urged her to speak more directly to the issue of condemnation. "As days turned to months, new cracks and damage appeared."

Abram said she feared the ongoing construction project would cause long-term damage to 97 Orchard St., which is listed as a National Historic Landmark by the federal National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 1998, 97 Orchard St. was affiliated with the National Parks Service. Museum officials are seeking further protections for the building. The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission is currently looking into designating 97 Orchard a city landmark, according to Mary Beth Betts, a Landmarks spokesperson. She said Abram met with Landmarks officials last spring to discuss designating the building. It is currently not protected by any of the city's landmarks preservation laws.

"We have an obligation to this site for the people and the community," Abram said at the meeting. "We were unable to ensure the safety of this landmark."

Jeffrey Lynford, an emeritus trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a trustee of the Tenement Museum, supported the museum's efforts to take over 99 Orchard St.

"The trustees of the museum believe they are facing the certain mutilation of their historic property at 97 Orchard St.," Lynford said in a statement at a Jan. 9 E.S.D.C.-sponsored public hearing on the project at University Settlement attended by almost 200 people the day before the C.B. 3 meeting. "As fiduciaries, [the museum's trustees] are bound by New York State law to protect the assets of the trust."

Lisa Kaplan, C.B. 3 chairperson, was concerned that there is no mention of any concerns about the stability of the building or poor construction practices of its neighbors in the proposal submitted by E.S.D.C.

"It doesn't mention in the 25 pages a threat to the integrity of the building's structure," Kaplan said at the committee meeting. "There's a real disconnect here."

Joe Patillo, a lawyer for E.S.D.C., acknowledged that Abram's concerns with construction next door are not mentioned in the proposal, but he said the structural-damage issue was not irrelevant. He did not explain why there is no mention in the proposal of structural damage. Abram said E.S.D.C. got involved only after she appealed to them and several other governmental agencies for help with what she saw as disregard for a "cultural treasure."

"We're putting the museum in a position where it can expand," said Patillo. "The emphasis in our proposal is on the expansion."

According to New York City Department of Buildings records, 98 Allen Realty Inc., Holtzman and Liang's company, was issued violations by the D.O.B. and the city's Environmental Control Board on Nov. 16, 2000, for "failure to maintain" after Tenement Museum officials complained that construction there was damaging their building. According to the D.O.B. report, an inspector saw vertical cracks in the northwest corner of the Tenement Museum.

A similar complaint made two weeks earlier on Nov. 2, 2000, resulted in no action after a D.O.B. inspector could find no evidence of damage. Tenement Museum officials claimed the rear wall of 97 Orchard had cracks and bulges.

A stop-work order was served on the site again on Nov. 29, 2000, for Liang's failure to submit an engineer's report of the adjacent property. A construction permit was revoked on Jan. 5, 2001, because plans for the restaurant's expansion had not been filed. Violations were issued in six different cases, and according to a D.O.B. spokesperson, at least two stop-work orders were enforced at the site in 2001.

Holtzman called the construction complaints "harassment" and an effort by the Tenement Museum to acquire the property for less than what the owners had offered. He said, except for some minor finishing work, that the construction is now finished and that previous problems raised by the D.O.B. have been resolved.

"If I'm such a creep, how come I have a certificate of occupancy now?" Holtzman asked at the housing committee meeting.

Of the 15 complaints made to D.O.B. between Nov. 2, 2000, and Nov. 29, 2001, no action was taken in nine cases. Citing confidentiality policies, D.O.B. will not disclose who made the complaints. Most of the complaints made were for work without a permit or after-hours construction.

Contacted after the C.B. 3 meeting, Andrew Flamm, executive director of the Lower East Side Business Improvement, echoed the housing committee's concerns.

"We're not convinced that eminent domain is the necessary next step in terms of the purchasing of this building. We're not sure whether there's a precedent for this," said Flamm. "The expansion itself, as a stand-alone issue, would be great for the neighborhood."

Some board members criticized the museum for not exploring other means to address the construction threat.

"I think there's a certain unseemliness about bringing in the bully of the state to solve this construction problem," said Barden Prisant, a housing committee member, suggesting that if the Tenement Museum was primarily concerned about 98 Allen Realty's construction practices, they should consider court action instead.

Abram said she had been advised not to pursue court action by lawyers and other consultants.

"Litigation doesn't stop this pattern of behavior," she said.

Harvey Epstein, chairperson of the housing committee, criticized the museum for not coming to the public sooner with their plans, and said it seemed as if the museum was trying to sneak its plans past the community.

The museum has agreed to pay all out-of-pocket expenses incurred by E.S.D.C. The estimated total cost of the project is just under $4 million, which includes $1.35 million for the purchase of the fully-renovated 99 Orchard St. The figure was based on a January estimate by an independent appraiser. It also includes another $2.3 million for renovation of the building. The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs has already committed $2 million to the project through a grant.

Holtzman and Liang offered to sell the building to the Tenement Museum for $6 million in Jan. 2001, according to a memo from Howard Leder, a lawyer for 98 Allen Realty.

According to a source, the Tenement Museum is also negotiating to buy 91 and 93 Orchard St.

Several years ago, C.B. 3 went on record supporting the Tenement Museum getting space in the city-owned Essex St. Market's Building D, south of Delancey St., two blocks from the museum. But the building was later included in the city's request for proposals to develop the last parts of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Zone.
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