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Neighbors fear museum will make them history

By: Jennifer Jensen; Villager photo by Jake Price January 09, 2002
The Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard St., with historic sign, at left, seeks to acquire the building just right of it, 99 Orchard.



















 In an effort to expand its successful tourist haunt, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum may be have to resort to a measure that's a sad chapter in so many of its exhibits: eviction.
About 15 tenants living in 99 Orchard St., which abuts the museum, could lose their homes if museum officials, in conjunction with the Empire State Development Corporation, succeed in condemning the site, a newly renovated, turn-of-the-century building. About 45 employees at the Congee Village Restaurant, located on the ground floor of 99 Orchard, could also lose their jobs, according to Jenny Ngo, a manager at the restaurant. E.S.D.C., a governmental economic development agency, is in the process of trying to force the sale of 99 Orchard through eminent domain, a process by which a property owner must sell because the government has decided it is in the public's best interest for them to do so.

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 79 Orchard St., is dedicated to telling the story of the living conditions of immigrant families on the Lower East Side.

Mimi Holtzman, who owns 99 Orchard St. with her husband, Lou, and Peter Liang, owner of Congee Village and a principal in the building, are fighting its condemnation. In a faxed statement, Liang called the project a "farce" and said it would cost him a major investment in the restaurant and "scores of men and women" their jobs.

Holtzman lambasted the museum and its director, Ruth Abram, saying Empire State's effort was part of the Tenement Museum's broader agenda to expand.

"Four generations of my husband's family lived and worked in that building [99 Orchard St.]," said Holtzman. "It's financial ruin for us and it's just so mean."

Holtzman wouldn't say how much she and her husband are spending on the ongoing renovation of the building, but she did say it was a major investment. She said that, after being asked by the Tenement Museum, they made an offer to sell the building - she wouldn't say for how much - but that no one ever responded to the offer.

Abram said that the owners of 99 Orchard offered to sell the building for $6 million.

Abram claims a total renovation of 99 Orchard St. caused damage to the Tenement Museum. She described the pending condemnation of the building and the possible sale of it to the museum as a fortunate consequence of their concerns over the neighbor's construction. She said they never had to close the museum because of the damage.

"The problem is that we have an owner who has no regard for building next to a historic site," said Abram, who said that E.S.D.C. got involved only after Tenement Museum officials reached out to various agencies to complain about construction they claim has damaged their building. "We called out for help to stop this construction."

The project is nearly finished and tenants have been living in the apartments since September, according to Holtzman.

Michael Mar, an E.S.D.C. spokesperson, said the condemnation of 99 Orchard was being pursued in order to allow the Tenement Museum to expand. He would not say whether Abram's claim that a three-year renovation of the building next door and expansion of the restaurant below undermined the structure of the Tenement Museum, as Abram claimed. When asked what would happen with the building's tenants or whether E.S.D.C. had been asked by Tenement Museum officials to proceed with condemnation, an E.S.D.C. spokesperson would not comment.
      
According to New York City Department of Buildings records, 98 Allen Realty Inc., Liang's company, was issued violations by the D.O.B. and the city's Environmental Control Board on Nov. 16, 2000 after Tenement Museum officials complained that construction there was damaging their building. According to the D.O.B. report, an inspector saw vertical cracks at the northwest corner of the Tenement Museum.
      
A similar complaint made on Nov. 2, 2000, resulted in no action after a D.O.B. inspector could find no evidence of damage (alleged cracks and bulging of the rear wall) at 97 Orchard, as was claimed by Tenement Museum officials.
      
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.
      
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. Of the 15 complaints made to the Department of Buildings between Nov. 2, 2000, and Nov. 29, 2001, no action was taken in nine cases. Citing confidentiality policies, the D.O.B. will not disclose who made the complaints. Violations were issued on six different cases, and most of those were for violations of previous stop-work orders. Most of the complaints made were for work without a permit or after-hours construction.
      
A public hearing on the proposed condemnation plan will take place at 6 p.m. tonight at 184 Eldridge St., between Delancey and Rivington Sts.
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