In an effort to increase accessibility in the subway system, the MTA and the city are teaming up to encourage developers of new sites to build more elevators near subway stations.
The city wants to not only sweeten an existing incentive, but also force developers to show their plans to the MTA before construction begins. The goal is to ensure there will be space for elevators in the future, if the MTA should ever decide to install them.
“This is another tool for expediting our advance toward full system wide accessibility,” Janno Lieber, president of MTA Construction & Development, said Friday.
The proposed changes to the city’s zoning codes require approval from both the City Council and the city’s planning commission.
It already has the backing of the City Planning Director Marsia Lago, who appeared with Lieber on Friday to announce the proposal.
“While New York City is unlikely ever to be a super easy town to live in, this zoning text amendment promises to make our city a fairer place,” she said.
The plan, officially called Zoning for Accessibility, would require any developer whose project is adjacent to a subway station in a high density area to meet with the MTA, to figure out if space on their property would have to be accessed by the MTA to build a future elevator. The city could then offer “zoning relief” to the contractor for allocating space, which might include modified parking requirements or flexibility with other zoning issues.
If the developer builds an elevator, instead of the MTA, they could receive a 20% “density bonus” which would allow them to expand their allotted footprint or offset the costs of their project.
But it’s not clear this is a change developers would welcome right now.
“Over the past two years we have worked with the MTA to reduce the time and cost to developers of meeting their requirements for building near their operations,” Kathryn Wylde, President and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, wrote to Gothamist/WNYC.
“If the MTA is successful in implementing the reforms— such as reducing the time to get an MTA approval for a building permit from as long as seven years to under a year, they can demand more from private developers such as the increased elevator requirements,” she stated. “If the bureaucracy is not able to streamline its performance, it will be difficult to demand any extras, especially with the economic uncertainty the city faces as a result of the pandemic.”
City council leadership is more amenable to the changes. The proposal has the backing of Speaker Corey Johnson, as well as the chair of the transportation committee, Ydanis Rodriguez.
“We are in desperate need of systemwide accessibility within our subways. As subway ridership continues to steadily increase we need to make sure we’re accommodating for all individuals with disabilities,” Rodriguez wrote in a statement provided by the MTA.
“I will continue to work alongside Quemuel Arroyo, Chief Accessibility Officer, the leadership of the MTA, my colleagues at the council, and advocates to ensure we make every subway station fully accessible.”
In 2020 the MTA completed renovating 11 stations, making them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The agency says that was the most new elevators installed in a single year. The goal for 2021 is to create eight more accessible stations.
“This is going to be the new normal at the MTA,” construction chief Lieber said. “We have to keep delivering accessibility projects at an unprecedented rate.”
The MTA’s $51.5 billion capital plan includes $5.2 billion for creating 70 accessible stations.
While the funding for the plan is still reliant on congestion pricing, and other state taxes, which the governor is currently considering diverting for other state needs, Lieber is confident that with recent help from the federal government, and the possibility of more federal funding, this commitment will be met.
If not, the new zoning changes could at least help push a few projects forward.
Despite the commitment to accessibility, the MTA continues to fight several lawsuits in court claiming the MTA is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and New York City Human Rights law because it renovated entire stations in the past without adding elevators, and failed to maintain its existing elevators. This is why some disability rights advocates remain skeptical about the latest proposal.
“My issue is the MTA tries to act like they are on our side but they are not, the MTA spends a large amount of money trying to fight our access issue,” Dustin Jones, President & Founder of United For Equal Access NY, wrote to Gothamist/WNYC.
“When they do something they don’t include us they take the only two people in wheelchairs who work for them, they say something and make it seem like we are all on the same page. Why not make a proposal speak your mind and then have someone from the community who’s well respected back it up,” he said, referring to MTA board member Victor Calise and MTA Chief Accessibility Officer, Quemuel Arroyo who spoke at a press conference Friday.
The zoning proposal will be open to public review starting Monday.