By Carol Tannenhauser
“Accessibility” was the rallying cry of politicians, activists, and concerned citizens at a protest Monday morning at the subway station at 110th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, which will be closed until the fall for renovations, as part of the “Enhanced Station Initiative” of the MTA’s $27-billion, five-year capital plan.
Outrage was the predominant emotion.
“This kind of renovation is done once a generation — if we’re lucky — and we are blowing the opportunity to do it right,” said City Council Member Mark Levine, whose District 7 includes Morningside Heights, West Harlem, part of the Upper West Side, and Washington Heights. “There is no improvement in access in this station or the other three along the B-C line that are already closed or will be closed: 163rd, 86th, and 72nd Streets.
The 86th Street station will close on June 4th; the 72nd Street station, on May 7th.
“The intent and the letter of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is clear,” Levine continued. “If you are going to do major capital work, you must include accessibility as part of the plan. We’re not doing that at any of these four stations. We have a stretch from Columbus Circle to 125th Street — seven stations — where not one is accessible to a person in a wheelchair. We’ve been screaming about this since the plan was announced. We believe it’s a violation of the ADA, and we want a feasibility study about expanding accessibility up and down this line as soon as possible.”
It can’t be soon enough for Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, 41, who’s been in a wheelchair for nearly nine years. He made headlines in 2009, when, on his way to work as an engineer at Google, he was nearly killed by a falling branch in Central Park. “It was extraordinarily bad luck,” he said. It turned him from a “private citizen” into an “advocate.” Top of his list is getting someone in a wheelchair on the MTA Board.
“Who was planning this?” Blair-Goldensohn demanded. “Who was in that room making the decision? The MTA Board is appointed, largely, by Governor Cuomo, who is not getting diversity onto the Board in any way, including anybody with a visible disability. Until there’s somebody on that board who’s in the position we’re in all the time: not being able to get somewhere; having to make different plans; getting stuck in the station and getting carried up the stairs; until that happens, it’s not going to be top of the mind for them.
“There’s a lot of other things that they’re doing here,” he continued. “They’re putting in new tiles, UBS ports, all kinds of things we can use. But that’s not the priority. We’re not asking for a rocket to Jupiter or a submarine in the reservoir. We’re asking for an elevator! It’s so obvious and fundamental, and there are so many people who need it. It’s not just wheelchairs. It’s older people, parents with strollers, tourists with luggage, MTA workers; they’re all going to use it once it’s there.”
Blair-Goldensohn held a sign made by his 11-year-old daughter, Sophie. “Let Us Ride!” it proclaimed, with a picture of a dinosaur. “It has the dinosaur to symbolize that these stations are dinosaurs,” he said, “and, also, that the station right by the natural-history museum doesn’t have an elevator either.”
Another objection to the station closures concerned what State Senator Brian Benjamin described as the “atrocious” communication of the plans to the local community boards and the public.
“We should not be standing here, looking at a boarded-up train station, having these conversations, asking these questions,” Benjamin said. “This is what we have community boards for. If we had had community input and communication, at least three to six months in advance, we could have discussed all these issues. Instead, we’re having this plan shoved down our throats.”
Benjamin has introduced legislation requiring the MTA to give at least 90 days’ notice to the neighboring community boards of planned station closures in the future.
It is interesting to note, as reported in WSR, that CB7 rejected a call by State Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal in early March “for the MTA to delay the station upgrades so the community could speak out at a hearing.” Levine pointed out, however, that “there was almost no communication with CB10, which is Central Harlem, and very, very little with CB9, and that what was done was last minute and haphazard. Most people who are coming to this station this morning are learning about the closure because it’s boarded up.”
Shams Tarek, a spokesperson for the MTA responded to the criticisms, in an email:
“There is critical structural repair and functional improvement work being done here that when completed will benefit commuters for generations to come,” he wrote. “We are in contact with local elected officials and value our relationship with local communities. After weeks of advance notice and discussions, we’re now closely monitoring local subway and bus ridership and will make adjustments as necessary. New NYC Transit President Byford has made accessibility one of his top priorities from day one of his tenure, and MTA Chairman Lhota has convened a working group among members of the MTA Board to tackle the challenge of making more of the system accessible as quickly as possible.”