People About Our Cause!
3 committee critical of museum expand plan
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
Abram said she had been advised not to pursue court action by
lawyers and other consultants.
"Litigation doesn't stop this pattern of behavior,"
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