Brooklyn Boro

How Community Development Should Work

March 24, 2021 By Jessica Murray
Michael Harris, founder of the Disabled Riders Coalition, waits for a subway elevator at Grand Central several years ago. AP file photo by Tina Fineberg

The drumbeat for better subway accessibility has gotten louder in the past few years as more and more people suffer from mobility difficulties due to a disability, increased age or other factors. Despite advocates vocalizing their frustrations surrounding the slow-paced progress for transit accessibility since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) first passed in 1990, the MTA has long maintained that difficulties with utilities add to the expense and complexity of installing elevators.

One proven way to mitigate costs for the MTA in some stations is to take advantage of new building construction adjacent to subway stations. Easements make it possible to make stations with very little sidewalk space more accessible, while utilities can create other challenges for construction. It’s far more cost-effective to carve out an easement when a building is going up rather than diverting utilities that are buried beneath the sidewalks around an elevator. When the elevator is tucked into a building rather than taking up sidewalk space, it also makes for a better pedestrian experience overall. Unfortunately, developers don’t always create an easement when they build on top of inaccessible stations.

There are some examples where this kind of public-private partnership can work to increase accessibility. Totem, a Brooklyn-based real estate development, and design firm, proactively reached out to the Elevator Action Group and many other community groups last year to garner support for their mixed-use project at 737 4th Avenue in Sunset Park. They are looking to convert the site, which is currently a Dunkin’ Donuts and parking lot, to the same zoning as the lot across the street in order to create approximately 135 units of new housing — 1 in 4 of which would be permanently affordable to neighborhood residents.

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While a project of this size can’t take on the expense of the subway elevator construction (estimated around tens of millions of dollars), the developers have committed to carving out an easement to the MTA as another concession for the zoning change. The project adjacent to 25th St. N/R station, has a narrow sidewalk and platform, making this particular easement the ideal accessibility solution.

Even more, with lower construction costs for the MTA, it might make the project easier for the agency to prioritize an elevator at that location in the future. In the interim period, until an elevator can be installed, Totem has committed to working with local nonprofits and economic development groups to program the space, showcasing local entrepreneurs.

Totem’s forward-thinking approach to this development’s accessibility is refreshing, especially as projects continue to be built without these discussions, creating missed opportunities and further delaying public transit access to people with disabilities. A city council and MTA zoning proposal to require developers to consult with MTA — and avoid missing out on easement opportunities like the one Totem is offering — is on the horizon.

If approved, Zoning for Transit Accessibility (ZTA) could make this type of collaboration the norm for future developments. In the meantime, and for new buildings that may not benefit from ZTA, Totem’s extensive outreach with the community to understand the neighborhood’s current and future needs is worthy of City Council approval and emulation by other developers.

Jessica Murray is a member of the Rise and Resist Elevator Action Group and recently earned her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from The Graduate Center, CUNY

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