A decision by the historic but broke Bialystoker Center of Nursing and Rehabilitation on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to accept designation of its building as a landmark now appears to be conflicting with its most pressing moral imperative: paying back wages to its workers.
Gary Ambrose, a board member and treasurer at the Bialystoker, told the Landmarks Preservation Commission at a February hearing that it does not oppose the measure, which is popular with local activists who hope to preserve the historic character of the fast-changing neighborhood.
“We wish it to be known that we very much understand and do not oppose the measure,” he said at the hearing.
The statement won cautious applause from activists and local elected officials, who are pushing for the Bialystoker, built in 1923, to be given landmark status. But it could prove an obstacle to the nursing home’s ability to fulfill its commitments to workers laid off when the home closed its doors a year and a half ago.
Up until now, the only developer to make a serious offer to buy the property was the Aegis Group. It backed away from a $17 million offer after the plan to landmark the building earned the endorsement of City Council member Margaret Chin in July 2012.
Other potential buyers are said to be holding off until the issue is resolved, since landmark status would make it much more difficult to convert the building into lucrative residential space.
It’s another curious juncture for the Bialystoker, a 90-year-old center that was once one of the Lower East Side’s most valued institutions of Jewish life. In 2011, after long decades of decline, the home was overcome with debt, and board members said they were compelled to shut down operations, forcing at least 95 residents, most of them very elderly Jews, to find a new home.
According to the newspaper The Villager, the Bialystoker owed $14 million to former staff, vendors and various government agencies when it first closed and placed its storied building on East Broadway on the market, with an asking price of $10 million.
The news that the building might be demolished by a potential buyer caused a storm of opposition in the neighborhood and sparked mounting calls to have the building placed under city protection.
Ambrose’s February announcement was greeted as a pleasant surprise, even though it was followed by a long list of qualifiers that make the Bialystoker’s future sound less than certain.