Big Turnout For Bialystoker Hearing Before Landmarks Commission

228 East Broadway.
228 East Broadway.

There was strong turnout this morning at a public hearing concerning an application to protect the former Bialystoker Nursing Home building at 228 East Broadway.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission heard from a couple dozen speakers, all in support of saving the 1929 Art Deco building, and Bob Tierney, the panel’s chairman, even played the role of “matchmaker.”

The Bialystoker home, facing a range of financial problems, closed in late 2011, and for a time, the board sought a buyer interested in purchasing the site for redevelopment.  Following months of activism by a new preservation group, Friends of the Lower East Side, the board changed course, saying it would not stand in the way of the landmark application. Today, Chairman Tierney thanked the owners for working hand-in-hand with the commission during the past few months in what he called “a productive paertnership.”

Gary Ambrose, a longtime nursing home board member, spoke first, noting that he and his colleagues were “honored to serve as stewards” of a building that embodied the Eastern European Jewish experience on the Lower East Side. He said the board shares with preservationists a “great reverence” for the Bialystoker’s symbolic meaning. But, Ambrose added, they want to make sure that the sale price is sufficient to pay employees and vendors (many of them locally based) who are owed millions of dollars.  Talks are ongoing, he said, with several prospective buyers, all of whom understand the “building will be landmarked.”

Later in the hearing, the commission heard testimony from Michael Sokolow, who said he’s in the real estate business and that his firm supports landmark designation and has a desire to purchase the building.  In fact, Sokolow indicated, his company submitted a bid some time ago, which specifically stated that they wanted to pursue “adaptive re-use” of the nursing home building.  Referencing other historic landmarks, such as The Forward and Jarmulowsky buildings, he praised architect Ron Castellano (sitting in the audience), who spearheaded those earlier projects. “We’d love to work with him on this building,” Sokolow said. Tierney, gesturing to the nursing home board’s attorney, said “the owner is right behind you,” and he encouraged them to start a conversation.  Following the hearing, they did just that.

An emotional high point today came during testimony from 85-year old Sam Solarz, who said he came to the Bialystok philanthropic organization in 1951 with $10 to his name.  They signed the papers to get him in the country, gave him a job and set him on a path to prosperity in America (Solarz founded a wholesale meat company).  Solarz, who served as board president for more than a decade said, “It would be a shame to knock down this building.”

City Council member Margaret Chin also spoke in favor of landmark protection, saying “this rare opportunity to preserve a significant building” should not be passed up because designation would ensure that “the community will not forget the contributions” made by Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. Chin, who was praised by Tierney and several preservation activists, added, “it’s been a long journey” to save the building but “I think it’s future is still bright.”  Another elected official, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, added his support, an aide reading a statement calling the Bialystoker an important symbol of the city’s past.

Among today’s 20 or so public speakers were members of Friends of the Lower East Side, including historian Joyce Mendelsohn, Mitchell Grubler and Linda Jones.  They were joined by prominent citywide preservation groups, such as the Landmarks Conservancy and the Historic Districts Council, by Community Board 3 and by community organizations like the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.

Architect Ron Castellano told commissioners he believes “it’s so important to preserve the charm of the neighborhood,” and that the Bialystoker is a worthy companion to The Forward Building and the Jarmulowsky building, which he’s currently converting to a hotel.  Castellano expressed confidence that the new owner (whomever that may be) will be able to find a new use for the building that’s financially feasible.

There was no opposition to the application.  It could be weeks or months before the commission votes on the proposal.