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BY LESLEY SUSSMAN | The fate of a historic dispensary located at 75 Essex St. remains uncertain as Community Board 3 decided to postpone a vote last month on whether to support its landmark designation. The former Good Samaritan/Eastern District Dispensary was constructed in 1890 with charitable donations and operated for 60 years with city funding.
C.B. 3’s full board voted overwhelmingly for the delay at its Feb. 25 meeting despite an earlier vote by C.B. 3’s Landmark’s Subcommittee and the board’s Executive Committee in favor of such a designation. Board members wanted to give the building owner, Shalom Eisner, more time to present his case against landmark status.
The free-standing, four-story brick building was designed by noted architects Rose & Stone in the Italianate style and is the only structure of its kind in the area.
The dispensary, which closed in the 1950s, served as a free and low-cost walk-in community healthcare facility for the impoverished immigrant community of the Lower East Side.
The mostly vacant building is located adjacent to the proposed Essex Crossing development, a mixed-used project set to break ground this year on a former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area site. The building now houses a sports retail store owned by Eisner on the ground floor. The property has been on and off the market in recent years, and is reportedly now on sale for $21 million.
At the C.B. 3 full-board meeting, attended by about 100 local residents, Eisner told the board that he and his family have devoted years to the building’s upkeep and that a landmark designation for the historic structure would make him lose up to 60 percent of the building’s value because it would place development restrictions on any new buyer.
“It was a very bad neighborhood in 1985 when my brother and I bought the building,” he said. “I was almost going to leave. Finally, things changed for the better, although my business is still zero. The only way my property is valuable is by not landmarking it. If it is landmarked, this is not fair to me and my family for all the work I’ve done there over the years.”
Speaking in support of Eisner was Jan Sasson, a local businessman, who concurred that landmarking it would sharply decrease the building’s value.
“Sure, it would be good for the community,” he added, “but it will put a hole in the life of his family and that’s not fair to him. While the whole area is being redeveloped, he will be left out in the cold. I think there’s a middle ground we can reach here somehow.”
Speaking in support for landmark designation were members of Friends of the Lower East Side, a preservation group that, last January, asked the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to protect 75 Essex St.
The preservation group is concerned that the building could be damaged from construction work on the Essex Street Crossing project and would be “vulnerable to inappropriate alterations or demolition” by whoever purchases the structure. They noted that the building is a prime candidate for conversion to a luxury hotel, an upscale condo or any number of uses.
Joyce Mendelsohn, author of “The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited” and a member of the preservation group, said it was essential that the building be protected.
“It is our responsibility to preserve buildings that reflect the core immigrant character of the Lower East Side,” she said. “Plans for the new Essex Crossing present a vision of the future. The former dispensary provides a reflection of the past.”
Mitchell Grubler, a founding member of Friends of the Lower East Side, told C.B. 3 members that the building must be landmarked “in recognition of its architectural and historical significance.”
“Surrounded on three sides by the planned new construction of the massive Essex Crossing development, and, as yet, unprotected by landmark designation, this historic structure is vulnerable to demolition or inappropriate alternations,” he said. “The former dispensary needs to be preserved, not just for its architectural excellence, but saving it will have a positive effect on the environment.”
As the moment arrived for a final vote to be taken on the issue, board member Morris Faitelewicz was one of several members who asked C.B. 3 Chairperson Gigi Li to send the measure back to the board’s Landmarks Subcommittee for more discussion.
“There’s no rush on this,” he said. “It shouldn’t be approved just by the Executive Committee. Eisner should be given more time to present his arguments and show his community support.”
Li said that the proposal came before the Executive Committee because “the ball was already rolling. Eisner wasn’t present at the Landmarks Subcommittee meeting, so we got it to vote on.”
Carolyn Ratcliffe, chairperson of the subcommittee, said that Eisner “was aware of the meeting and it’s not our responsibility to notify people.” She admitted, however, that there was “some confusion” and that her committee would be willing to reconsider the matter.
After the full-board meeting, Eisner said that he didn’t make it to the subcommittee meeting because of the “snowy weather” that day. He said that all he wanted was a “compromise” regarding the fate of the former dispensary building.
“If I could get air rights for my building I would be satisfied,” he said. “I have no special strategy. I just want things done that are right for me and my family.”
The Essex Crossing project is being developed by Delancey Street Associates, and calls for an Andy Warhol Museum to be built right next door to 75 Essex St. The parcel of land has frontages on Broome and Ludlow Sts.
In addition to the museum, the developers plan to develop residential units on SPURA Site 1. The former dispensary building is about 12,400 square feet, and the property has nearly 32,000 feet in additional air rights. The developers, to date, have not indicated whether they would be interested in purchasing the privately owned building.
The building is located in the Lower East Side Historic District and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The four-story structure, which is in excellent condition, is clad in orange and tan brick, and laid in Flemish bond with a brownstone trim. It features a series of five round-arched openings on the first story along Essex St.
The former dispensary building survives as a testament to social reformers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose vision and commitment propelled New York City to pioneer progressive change.