Fighting for Good Fortune

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Ron Yu considers himself lucky. The Chinatown economy crumbled after September 11, and business at Congee Village, the Cantonese restaurant he manages on Allen Street, dropped 10 to 15 percent. But unlike many restaurants in the neighborhood, his is still open.

That good fortune may soon change, however. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum owns the building next to Congee Village at 97 Orchard Street, and for years it’s been looking to buy out its neighbors and expand. There’s just one problem: 99 Orchard, home to the popular restaurant and 15 apartments, is not for sale, a minor detail the museum is trying to circumvent.

“Obtaining 99 Orchard Street is essential to the future of this museum,” says founder and president, Ruth J. Abram. With the extra space, she says, the museum can double its visitor load and revenues–right now it operates on a $3.3 million budget–and offer more community programming, classroom space, a possible restaurant, more historic tenement apartments, and handicap access.

And with all that, the National Parks Service would finally recognize the 13-year-old museum as an affiliate of the city’s other immigrant tourist meccas–Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty–and lavish it with marketing benefits and a chance to apply for federal grants.

Last summer, Abram lobbied New York’s Empire State Development Corporation to condemn Congee Village and the apartments above it and sell them to the museum under laws of eminent domain, an action the state can take if it finds it is in the public’s best interest.

So far, the ESDC seems to like the idea. “We’re putting the museum in a position where it can expand,” says Joe Patillo, the agency’s lawyer. Three public hearings have been held, and the agency is expected to announce its decision this spring.

That gives Yu and his boss, Peter Liang, owner of Congee Village, little time to save their 40-employee business. They have a lot at stake: Last year, Liang and building landlord Lou Holtzman invested a couple of million to upgrade the apartments and another $2 million to expand the restaurant.

Their supporters hope the plight of Chinatown since the World Trade Center attacks will help. “After 9-11, the Empire State Development Corporation wants to help businesses recover. They don’t want to stop business,” says Paul Lee of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, which has provided Congee Village with legal assistance. “[Congee Village] has jobs we need.” The Asian American Federation conservatively estimates that 1,000 Chinese city residents have been unemployed since the fall.
Liang has Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on his side, and Holtzman has hired a lobbyist to get to the other big guns in Albany.

“We will fight to the end,” says Yu. “There are no jobs in Chinatown. Many of my workers do not speak English. Where does the museum expect them to go?”