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You Can Fight City Hall (actually, the MTA) and Win

Everyone knows you can’t fight City Hall. But a handful of co-ops on the Upper East Side banded together recently and fought a winning battle against an equally hidebound and byzantine bureaucracy – the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

The issue that got these co-ops cooperating was the proposed location of the 72nd Street entrance to the Second Avenue subway, a project that has been in the works since the days of flappers, Tin Lizzies, and bathtub gin.

The original plan called for putting the two entrances where a logical person might expect to find them – at the northeast and northwest corners of Second Avenue and 72nd Street. But the MTA has rarely been accused of being logical, and so one day in the fall of 2007, the transit authority decided to move the northeast-corner entrance to the middle of the block on the north side of East 72nd Street, between First and Second Avenues.

Not only that, the MTA proposed two mid-block entrances protected by soaring glass canopies. That got the neighborhood’s attention.” We accepted that there was going to be a subway stop at Second Avenue,” says Valerie Mason, vice president of the co-op board at 320 East 72nd Street, a 40-unit building erected in the late 1920s, when Herbert Hoover was in the White House and Black Monday had not yet taken the roar out of the Roaring Twenties. “Then, literally overnight, the station entrances were moved from the corner to the middle of the block. They looked like two huge soccer goals. The MTA said they had encountered some problems at the corner. What I saw was an attractive nuisance and a safety hazard.”

Alan Schnitzer, a lawyer who was then serving as president of a nearby co-op at 340 East 72nd Street, got the ball rolling. “He contacted several co-ops,” Mason recalls, “and said, ‘Let’s have a meeting and see if there are any objections.’ ”

In December 2007, representatives from half-a-dozen co-ops showed up at Schnitzer’s apartment to share information and discuss alternatives to the MTA’ s new plan. They agreed to make their concerns known to elected officials, including Jessica Lappin of the city council, State Senator Liz Krueger, and U.S. Representative Caroline Maloney. The neighbors also discussed suing to have the relocation of the entrance declared illegal.

Phyllis Weisberg, a partner at the law firm of Kurzman Karelsen & Frank, filed a lawsuit in state court on behalf of the co-ops at 320 and 340 East 72nd Street. Two co-ops across the street filed a similar suit in federal court.

“The basis for the lawsuits was that under state and federal law, certain environmental impact studies have to be done and public hearings have to be held,” Weisberg says. “Five days after the [2007] public hearing, the MTA said they were moving the entrance. They did that without studies or a public hearing.”

The co-ops at 320 and 340 East 72nd Streets agreed to hire Kasirer Consulting, a lobbying firm, to help get their message to elected officials. Julie Greenberg, a lobbyist with Kasirer, says, “We tried to help them make their case to elected officials. We briefed them on putting together information on traffic and safety issues, and then making their case.”

Meanwhile a handful of co-op residents on the block got busy mobilizing their neighbors. “We started to engage the buildings on the block,” Mason says. “We asked people to attend community board meetings, write to elected officials. We had huge turnouts at the meetings, and we made presentations showing how the new entrances would be unsafe. Since they’re in the middle of the block, they would cause people to start jaywalking on a main crosstown thoroughfare.”

The activists got 1,500 signatures on a petition and convinced 11 co-op board presidents to write a joint letter to the MTA and elected officials objecting to the proposed relocation. Portis Hicks, a retired lawyer who is now vice president of the co-op board at 340 East 72nd Street, was a major force in the mobilization.

“I became the point person in our building to keep people apprised of what was going and try to get other buildings interested,” Hicks says. “We called buildings where we knew people to get in touch with board members. In every building, people were interested in this issue. It wasn’t that difficult to get people involved. The MTA sprang this change on us from the bottom of the deck, and it was going to change the character of the neighborhood and create a safety hazard.”

The activists circulated newsletters, posted notices in lobbies and wrote e-mails to shareholders in a dozen co-ops on the block. Finally, at a packed public hearing in June 2009, their hard work paid off. The MTA bowed to neighborhood pressure. When it submitted an environmental assessment of the possible locations of the entrance to the Federal Transit Administration, the MTA stated that its “preferred alternative” is the southeast corner of 72nd Street.

The successful campaign has a valuable lesson for any neighborhood. “One thing I learned about organizing is you’ve got to be able to devote time to it,” says Hicks. “We spent a lot of time keeping people informed about when the public meetings were going to be and what they were going to cover.”

In the end, according to Mason, the most potent weapon in this fight was not the lawyers or the lawsuits or the professional lobbyists. It was the neighbors. “The reason we got the MTA to change its mind was not the professionals we hired,” says Mason, who works as a banking lawyer. “It was the sheer number of people on the street who took time out from their lives to attend meetings and write letters. That was the key. [The MTA] knew we were not going away and we had to be dealt with.”

But the lawyers, lawsuits, lobbyists – and neighborhood unity – certainly didn’t hurt. A very similar battle is being fought a few blocks to the north, at 86th Street, where neighbors are trying to get the MTA to move a subway entrance from the middle of the block back to the northeast corner of Second Avenue.

Civitas, a non-profit advocacy group on the Upper East Side and East Harlem, has helped lead the fight. The MTA and Federal Transit Administration are now processing the public input from a neighborhood that’s a mix of rental and co-op apartments. No final decision has been reached on the location of the 86th Street entrance.

“The neighbors at 72nd Street were very organized and incredibly effective,” says Hunter Armstrong, executive director of Civitas. “The neighbors on 86th Street have not banded together to hire attorneys and a lobbying firm, They’re a little less in agreement as to what they’d like to see. “To its credit, the MTA says it welcomes citizen input. “Public opinion has been invaluable throughout the Second Avenue subway design process,” says MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan. Construction crews have begun digging at the corner of Second Avenue. “Now,” says Mason, “we just hope they get the thing built as soon as possible so we can get our neighborhood back.”

Don’t hold your breath. The MTA, not known for rushing into things, now says the Second Avenue trains will be up and running by 2016.

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