Here’s an update on the fate of the Bialystoker Nursing Home building at 228 East Broadway. As we have reported, the troubled home closed late last month after the last of its residents found new accommodations. Facing what they characterize as a dire financial situation, the board of directors is pedaling the property to prospective buyers as a luxury condominium site. But a new coalition, Friends of the Bialystoker Home, has asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission to protect the 1929 Art Deco building, which would prevent its demolition.
Earlier this week, State Senator Daniel Squadron addressed the issue during a town hall meeting at a senior center on Delancey Street. Responding to a question from coalition member Mitchell Grubler (of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors), Squadron suggested he’d like to see the building saved. He said the home had its shortcomings but that closing it was not the right thing to do.
Squadron added that his office is “looking at whether we can make a strong case for landmarking.” He indicated there were some issues that needed to be resolved before he decides whether to support the application requesting landmark status for the building. Squadron was not specific about what those issues are.
But preservation activists and others concerned about the future of the now-vacant building, have pointed to a lawsuit filed earlier this year by the union representing the home’s former workers. In the suit, 1199/SEIU United Healthcare Workers East alleged that Bialystoker had failed to pay more than $400,000 to the union’s benefit, pension and education funds. William Quintana, who was the home’s recreation director, said union members were told Bialystoker would only reimburse those funds after the building is sold. The same apparently goes for severance pay, which Quintana indicated had not been paid to any of Bialystoker’s approximately 140 employees. Isaac Nortey, a union vice president, declined to discuss the matter when The Lo-Down contacted him yesterday.
Preservation groups believe the Bialystoker Home could be an ideal condo conversion, and speculate that the sale of the building (with landmark status) could be quite profitable. But the board is evidently convinced the building is in such terrible shape that demolition is the only option. If the city protects it, they fear no buyer will step in with the kind of offer the Bialystoker organization needs to pay off its considerable debts.
Lower East Side historian Joyce Mendelsohn, who’s leading the preservation effort, believes the board is setting up a “false choice” between protecting an historically significant building and compensating the unionized workers. She said her group hopes the board will allow an independent engineer to go inside the Bailaystoker building to assess its condition.
In 2002, the Bialystoker Home was awarded a $350,000 grant from the state for “terra-cotta and brick stabilization and restoration.” The board returned the money two years later because it could not match the grant (a state requirement). Whatever has occurred in the past, Mendelsohn argued, the landmark application offers a new opportunity to restore a building that is hugely significant to the neighborhood’s history. The first step, she said, would be persuading the Landmarks Commission to “calendar” the Bialystoker proposal. If that were to occur, the building could not be altered while the lengthy landmarks review took place.
Squadron is not the only elected official looking at the issue. Friends of the Bialystoker met with City Councilmember Margaret Chin recently. Mendelsohn said she was impressed with her staff’s depth of knowledge about the building. This afternoon, Chin emailed us a statement about the landmark application saying, “At this time, we are weighing our options and gathering information. It is a proposal I am interested in learning more about.” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has not weighed in with a position on the landmark matter.
At his community meeting, Squadron said he has been in contact with State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The AG’s office is examining whether there was any impropriety in the purchase last year by Board Chair Ira Meister of an office building owned by the nursing home. Squadron told the activists he had urged Schneiderman to look “very closely” at the situation and to use a “fine-toothed comb” in the search for anything that was inappropriate in the nursing home’s financial dealings.
We left a message at Mesiter’s office yesterday. It has not been returned.