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Is condemnation really needed on Orchard St.?

January 16, 2002
An unusual case presents itself in the proposed condemnation by New York State of a Lower East Side tenement. The Tenement Museum, at 97 Orchard St., alleges that renovation work at 99 Orchard St. next door has undermined its building as well as caused cracks in the museum's facade. On one inspection, the Department of Buildings did find cracks pointed out by the museum, another time D.O.B. found nothing.
Meanwhile, the Empire State Development Corporation is advocating the condemnation of the building - a newly-renovated tenement with 15 residential apartments and a Chinese restaurant with a staff of 40, according to the owner - as part of its effort to link the museum with two other important historic sites: the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
However, at this point, it's a bit unclear who is really spearheading the call for condemnation, since the Tenement Museum and E.S.D.C. are each citing different reasons for it: the museum seems to be focusing on the construction damage; E.S.D.C. doesn't mention the construction damage in its report but focuses instead on the museum's need to expand.
According to a source at Community Board 3, the Tenement Museum was not particularly forthcoming about notifying the board of its plan, resulting in the issue being scheduled on Board 3's agenda too late, so that the E.S.D.C. hearing occurred the night before the board's housing committee meeting. As a result, Board 3's input at the E.S.D.C. hearing was necessarily weakened. This was the first blatant misstep in this process so far, and from now on the debate should proceed with all efforts to increase public review.
It is incumbent on the state to determine if this condemnation and acquisition of the property at a price calculated at market rate is, as is required, for the greater public good. Clearly, the Tenement Museum is an extraordinary place and one of the Lower East Side's and the nation's great resources. The museum has researched scores of histories of immigrant families who peopled 97 Orchard St., and has re-created authentic period apartments. To go there is to step back in time.
But consider that the museum's gift store is a half block away and across the street. Does the museum really need to expand right next door? Is the museum's opening a facility in the Essex St. Market's Building D two blocks away an option, as Board 3 has recommended? That would obviously be a great place for an exhibit on pushcart vendors, since Mayor LaGuardia built the market for them. Also, if reports are true that the museum is trying to purchase 91 and 93 Orchard Sts., is it necessary to take over 97 Orchard by condemnation?
At the same time, one wonders if the owners of 97 Orchard were asking too high a price for the property when, knowing the museum coveted it, they offered to sell it several years ago for $6 million.
There are unanswered questions here, and the state and museum must make efforts to assure they are playing fair. One simple idea is that the state hire an independent, third-party appraiser to determine 97 Orchard's fair-market value. Condemnation shouldn't be taken lightly. More public vetting of the issues is needed.
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