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Owner Plans Addition to Historic Building Amid Landmarking Fight

 Local preservationists are pushing to have the Eastern Dispensary building on Essex Street designated as a landmark.
Eastern Dispensary Building
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LOWER EAST SIDE — The owner of a historic Essex Street building hopes to turn a profit by adding several more floors — even as some in the community are pushing the city to landmark the existing building to prevent major changes.

Shalom Eisner, owner of the four-story Eastern Dispensary at 75 Essex St., which once served as a health care center for the poor, said he plans to take advantage of the building's 31,000 square feet in available air rights while keeping its base intact.

Eisner previously listed the 124-year-old building for sale for $21 million, but on Thursday he said he is leaning toward keeping it as a way of supporting his family.

"I'm not going to be around forever," said Eisner, who bought the building in 1985. "I have a big family and I want to leave them something."

He is working with three investors to fund the proposed addition to the building, he said.

Eisner said he plans to meet next week with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the city agency responsible for landmarking, to determine if he would be able to add to the building even if it eventually becomes a landmark. The commission usually does not allow major alterations to landmarked buildings.

The commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Following a push by local preservationists for 75 Essex St. to be landmarked, Community Board 3's landmarks committee voted Thursday night to support the effort, noting both the building's architectural style and its cultural importance to the neighborhood. CB3's vote is advisory.

With the neighborhood at undergoing massive changes, preservationists told the CB3 committee the Eastern Dispensary should be protected for its role in bringing free or low-cost health care to the area's struggling immigrants in the early 1900s. The building's architectural style of Italianate palazzo with its arches of orange and tan brick is also striking against the neighborhood's many tenements, they said.

"This is a really important building," said Joyce Mendelsohn, a retired schoolteacher who lives in the neighborhood. "If it is landmarked then we know the building is going to survive."

Mendelsohn is also a member of the group Friends of the Lower East Side, which is leading the push to landmark the Eastern Dispensary. It recently lead two success landmarking campaigns in 2013, the Bialaystoke nursing home and Seward Park Library.

Eisner said he is against landmarking the building if it interferes with his ability to build floors above it — and he defended his proposed addition, saying he would maintain the historic part of the building.

"My happiness is going to be in my pocket and your happiness is going to be in your eyes," Eisner said.