Whose Tenement Is It?

Whose Tenement Is It?

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s bid to take over the tenement next door is heating up for a new round of fighting.

Last week, the Empire State Development Corporation, a state agency, was set to decide whether to condemn the five-story brick building at 99 Orchard St., just south of Delancey. The building is home to a Chinese restaurant and 15 apartments, and Lou Holtzman, a part owner who traces his lineage there for four generations. The Tenement Museum, at 97 Orchard St., hopes to acquire the building for a much-needed expansion.

Condemnation by the ESDC would pave the way for a state takeover under "eminent domain, by which the government can force a sale of private property for public benefit. The museum would then purchase the property for market value. But the deadline for the ESDC’s ruling passed, leaving both sides in legal limbo and firmly holding their ground.

If the ESDC decides to condemn, 99 Orchard Street’s tenants will be paid to move from their newly renovated, $1,650-a-month apartments, and the restaurant will loose its recently expanded dining room.

Museum president Ruth Abram acknowledged the irony of an institution founded to preserve immigrant history seeking to evict tenement residents and immigrant workers. But she says the greater irony lies in opposition to the museum’s expansion plans. The Lower East Side Improvement District, the local community board and the district’s state representatives have come out in support of the tenants.

"I can’t understand it," Abram said. "This would be a major economic draw for the neighborhood."

With more space, the museum can accommodate crowds from its affiliates at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, which together received 5 million visitors last year. The expansion also would create another 100 jobs and bring new business to the neighborhood, Abram said.

With 99 Orchard St., the 14-year-old museum could install an elevator, make the facility handicap accessible, expand its community programs and more than double its annual visitorship of 90,000.

Since the ESDC started condemnation proceedings last November, the dispute has gotten personal. Abram says Holtzman is a profit-seeking landlord and an untrustworthy neighbor. She blames renovations at 99 Orchard St. for damage to the museum’s landmark building. Holtzman denies responsibility for the damage, and labels Abrams a "spoiled girl" with no real connection to the neighborhood.

The state’s silence leaves the door open for the condemnation proceeding to start afresh, with a new public hearing and deliberation period

Holtzman suspects that the ESDC is waiting until after June 13, when the museum holds its annual benefit dinner. Abram said she is confident the museum already has enough money to guarantee the deal.

"She won’t give up until she seizes the building," Holtzman said of Abram. "But she’ll never get it. The spirits of my family are too deep in the bricks."

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