DUMBO’s York Street subway station won’t be improved anytime soon

Worries about repeat of 2003 fire

January 17, 2023 Mary Frost
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DUMBO — Commuters who use the York Street subway station in DUMBO call the crowded F train stop a disaster waiting to happen, and are upping the pressure on the MTA to construct a second exit.

But the station is low on the transit agency’s list of priorities, residents and officials heard at a town hall held via Zoom, organized by Councilmember Lincoln Restler on Jan 9.

MTA engineers said that while building a second, ADA-compliant exit is theoretically possible, it would be enormously expensive — at least three times as much as the typical ADA project, which usually comes in at around $79 million.

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A full additional entrance would cost approximately $420-450 million; while an ADA-only entrance could cost $230-260 million.

MTA says that these eye-popping estimates are due to the obstacles presented by the particular construction of the station: the tunnels were built from cast iron rings and are 80 feet deep, and support pillars descend through the station from the Manhattan Bridge.

Commuters hike up the stairs after they exit the platform at the York Street station. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

However, the station’s original design did allow for a second exit which was never built.

At two locations near the center of the platform, the columns are spaced at 17.5 feet instead of 15 feet apart, which is “a viable location for a staircase,” MTA said.

An ADA-compliant, elevator-only project is also possible. A large capacity elevator could be built at the southern end of the platform, with the most likely connection to the street located along Jay Street between Sands and High streets, near the entrance to the pedestrian path of the Manhattan Bridge.

MTA is under pressure to make the majority of its stations ADA compliant by 2055 due to a class action settlement. Numerous criteria go into deciding which stations are in line for accessibility upgrades (closeness to another accessible station, destinations, ridership, demographics, costs, etc.). York Street falls low on the list due to accessibility at the Jay Street F line and other factors, MTA said.

The entrance to the York Street station in DUMBO, Brooklyn, is located in this subway ventilation building. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

‘My daughter could have been killed’

The only way to exit York Street station is by stairs at the north end of the platform, which lead to a steep hall, then to a mezzanine to the exit stairs. York Street is one of the deeper subway stations in the city, due to the depth of the Rutgers Tubes traveling under the East River.

The layout has been described as a “corked bottle.”

In July 2003, a smoky fire on a train pulling into York Street station resulted in roughly 140 passengers evacuating through the subway tunnel to an emergency exit at Tillary Street. According to report issued by MTA, numerous mistakes by Transit employees compounded the chaos; fans were turned on in the wrong direction; communications failed; and power was not turned off on an adjoining track.

When passengers emerged, 129 people required medical treatment, with 57 of them needing hospitalization.

DUMBO resident Ardele Lister’s teenage daughter was on that train.

Support pillars descend through York Street station from the Manhattan Bridge, limiting where a second staircase can be built. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

“My daughter could have been killed, electrocuted walking underground on the track in the middle of the night when there was no exit from the station due to a fire on the platform,” Lister told the Brooklyn Eagle.

“She was with two friends, wearing flip flops on her feet,” she said. “No one came downstairs to help them. They were all panicking … I think someone got the message to them that there would be help coming but after waiting what felt like an endless and dangerous smoke-filled time, they decided to walk along the tracks.

“They were pulled out [of the exit] by ambulance workers,” Lister said. “PTSD for years followed.”

Lister added that DUMBO is “filling every day with more people: A disaster waiting to happen. What will it take? Twenty or a hundred people trampled to death?”

The turnstile area at the York Street station can get crowded even during off hours. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Ridership has more than tripled

Today’s gentrified DUMBO is vastly different from the industrial neighborhood that existed when York Street station was constructed in 1936. Daily ridership at York Street more than tripled between 2005 and 2019 — from 4,100 to 12,600 in 2019 (though it’s yet to fully recover from the COVID slump, with 8,152 riders in November 2022).

Crowding is so bad that some riders worry that they may accidentally be pushed onto the tracks.

“When I moved from Europe decades ago, the neighborhoods near the train station were semi-abandoned, DUMBO did not have a name yet, and I lived in Vinegar Hill. Very few lived around here,” said Monique Denoncin.

“At that time the greatest danger for me was to be the only person coming out of the last car of the F train,” she said. “Always looking behind me, then running all the way to our door.”

“With the development of our area, which is still not over, the danger is about the number of straphangers on the platforms,” Denoncin said. “All of us have been worried about what could happen and the terrible consequences.”

The only way to in or out of the York Street station is by stairs at the north end of the platform, which lead to the steep hall seen here, then to a mezzanine to the exit stairs. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Doreen Gallo, president of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance, has been working with residents and city officials on the York Street issue since the 1990s.

“This is a most dangerous situation created by our city agencies over decades of up-zoning without planning for people. Now the MTA is forced to react,” she said.

Commuters even complain about the station on Yelp. “I’m not gonna lie, I’ve passed on some jobs in DUMBO just to avoid commuting to this station,” Manhattan resident Susan V. wrote on Yelp in July.

Commuters who use the York Street subway station in DUMBO heard at a recent town hall that MTA doesn’t expect to build a second entrance anytime soon. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Restler: ‘It’s the number one infrastructure issue’ facing DUMBO

“Adding additional means of entry and exit into York Street is a public safety issue as well as an economic development issue, because we are limiting the growth of the DUMBO community based on the capacity constraints at York Street station,” Restler told the Eagle following the presentation.

“Ultimately, we will need to secure significant resources to upgrade the York Street station in the next five-year MTA Capital Plan,” he said. “This is the number one infrastructure issue facing the DUMBO community.”

The next five-year budget starts in 2025, “So now is the time to begin planning and organizing to get the funding that we need,” Restler said.

MTA is currently completing a Twenty-Year Needs Assessment ahead of the 2025-29 Capital planning process.

Meeting Zoom-bombed with porno

Adding insult to injury, meeting attendees were also subjected to an unfortunate eyeful near the end of the Zoom session when someone who was logged in under the name of an MTA representative shared a screen of graphic pornography. Read more about the disruption here.

The York Street subway tunnels were built from cast iron rings, as seen in this 1932 photo.
Photo courtesy of MTA
Diagram of a possible design for an ADA-compliant elevator with two sections: one from the subway platform to the mezzanine level, and one from the mezzanine to an exit, which would likely be located near the entrance to the pedestrian path of the Manhattan Bridge. Rendering courtesy of MTA

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