NEW YORK OBSERVER
FEBRUARY 4, 2002
Tenement Museum Wants
The Tenement Next-Door
At a time when the city's biggest
cultural institutions are all focused on expansion, the 10-year-old Lower East
Side Tenement Museum's desire to do the same should be nothing more than a
footnote. Instead, it's become a neighborhood scandal.
For the last several years, the
Tenement Museum, at 97 Orchard Street, has been in a protracted dispute with its
next-door neighbor, Lou Holtzman , the owner of a classic six-story brick
tenement building at 99 Orchard Street very similar to the museum's. The trouble
began in September 2000, when Mr. Holtzman paid for a much-needed renovation to
his building, which his family has owned for four generations. The museum
claimed that the work done next-door caused "irreparable harm" to its
own I38-year-old building--specifically, that it had shifted floors and cracked
the plaster on the shared wall between the two buildings. Under order of the
Department of Buildings, Mr. Holtzman did further improvements, which were
completed last June. But Museum administrators have continued a correspondence
concerning what they allege to be a series of problems with the Department of
Buildings and Mr. Holtzman's lawyer, including a July 2001 letter stating that
the property's Certificate of Occupancy was not up to date.
The sub text of the entire dispute,
according to Mr. Holtzman, is that he refused a $3 million offer by the museum
to buy his building-and so the museum is trying to get it some other way. Ruth
Abram, the museum's founder and president, argues that acquiring 99 Orchard
Street would allow for an elevator shaft for handicap access---a crucial
requirement in the museum's bid to cement a partnership with the Statue of
Liberty and Ellis Island that would add the Tenement museum to the National
Parks Service's official roster of federally administered tourist attractions in
With Mr. Holtzman unwilling to sell,
Ms. Abram last summer found the Empire State Development Corporation willing to
intercede and begin exploring the possibility of exercising eminent-domain laws
to condemn 99 Orchard Street and deliver it to the museum The ESDC announced a
30-day public-comment period, which ends on Feb. 8, after which its board of
directors will begin several weeks of deliberations about the property's status.
Community Board 3's full board meeting
on Jan. 22, which included a heated debate on the museum's plans, was the second
public hearing on the subject. Ms. Abram told the board that "guaranteeing
wheelchair access to museum exhibits" was a chief aim of the museumís
attempts to take over 99 Orchard Street. However, that issue was outweighed by
concern for the 15 tenants currently living in the building and the bustling
Chinese restaurant on the ground floor. A spokesman for the ESDC present at the
meeting assured the board that the corporation would offer "a fair -market
-value price" for the building and would help to relocate the residential
tenants. Paul Lee, a Mott Street store owner and president of the 110 year-old
Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, questioned whether the ESDC had
forgotten how devastating the 9/11 attack was for the neighborhood. "We
very much respect the museum," said Mr. Lee. "However, there are some
live bodies in that building; there are some people with jobs in that building.
We can't understand the state removing this restaurant or these tenants."
Added board member Harry Wieder, who is
disabled himself, "The museum needs to deal with its access issues
The board voted down the museum's plan,
following the lead of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, which
held the first public hearing on Jan. 9.
The board's resolution contends that
"eminent domain is not the appropriate vehicle" for the museum to
stake its claim. The board is hopeful that their opposition will force the ESDC
to reconsider its present course.
Said Mr. Holtzman: "We don't want
to sell the building, We just want to get on with our lives."