New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community
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Can you keep public space private?
The battle is still raging between co-ops and condos and Citi Bike: can a building block a bike rack? Or does the city have final say?
Citi Bikes were big news in the spring as headlines blared about the bike-sharing program’s money woes, leadership strife, technical difficulties, and disappointing single-use ridership numbers.
But for some condos and co-ops, the problems cut closer to home: the bike stations are parked directly in front of their buildings’ entrances. While the majority of the city’s 329 bike stations have not resulted in legal battles, at least four co-ops and condos have taken legal action to get the fixtures removed or modified.
Transportation Alternatives is not a party to the lawsuits, but serves as an advocate for biking and bikers. “It’s definitely a not-in-my-backyard thing,” Caroline Samponaro, senior director of campaigns and organizing, says about the complaints. “There is this idea that individuals have the right to determine what will and won’t happen on public space in the city. The notion that every block would weigh in on whether their block is the right space defeats the purpose and the benefit of the program. Density is what makes it successful.”
But some critics complained that the bike stations would eliminate parking spots. Samponaro says that it would make sense to get rid of some parking spaces and repurpose them, but she adds that’s a personal preference, not a policy decision.
The bike racks are on city property, she notes, and that belongs to the city, not to the building nearby. She points out that although there were years of community input, city residents don’t have the final say in the decision. “The bike share is designed to be part of the public transportation network,” she says. “It’s supposed to supplement the bus and train system.”
Ready for Battle
So just what are the complaints? At the Cambridge Owners Corp., a 135-unit co-op at 175 West 13th Street, a 39-rack station was partially blocking the building’s entrance. Just days after the board filed a legal challenge last year, an elderly resident had a medical emergency, reports David R. Marcus, the board vice president.
“The ambulance had to park down the block because they could not get to the curb,” Marcus says of the incident that was chronicled in the local news. “He was OK, thankfully, but they had to wheel the gurney down the block to get him into the ambulance.” Days later, workers removed several bike racks that were directly in front of the entrance.
Despite the removals, the co-op is still pursuing its legal claim. It lost when New York State Supreme Court Judge Cynthia S. Kern threw out the complaint in October 2013, but the case is scheduled for oral arguments at the appellate division in early May. A ruling is expected soon.
“That block of 13th Street was designated a traffic lane some years ago, with no parking from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M. Monday through Saturday,” says Steven Shore, the attorney for the building. He adds that the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) own guidelines state that a bike station can’t block a traffic lane. The city argued that a “no standing” lane – a car cannot block the lane, even temporarily – would preclude the station but that a “no parking” spot was fair game. In her ruling, Judge Kern agreed with that argument.
The board at the condos at The Plaza filed a challenge in October. An attorney for the board declined to comment, but the public legal documents lay out a scathing critique of the station, which stretches directly across from the main entrance to the famous hotel. “The Bicycle Rack is not only an eyesore, stuck squarely in between two of the city’s most famous designated landmarks, but it came at the expense of a full lane of traffic,” which causes severe traffic congestion, the complaint states. It also charges that the DOT falsely claimed that the hotel had worked with the agency to select the site, although “nothing could be further from the truth.”
The condominiums’ complaint further said that the racks, which, as already noted, are decorated with a Citi Bike logo that resembles Citibank’s signage, are considered to be “street furniture within the DOT’s rules, yet those same rules prohibit advertising.” In late April, a Manhattan judge threw out the challenge, ruling for the third time in five months that the city conducted adequate reviews before installing the racks. “Specifically the Department of Transportation found that the Grand Army Plaza was an appropriate location as it is centrally located, safe and convenient for the public to use,” the court ruled.
Vermin and Garbage
Another condo, Left Bank Apartment Corporation at 99 Bank Street, filed a lawsuit in May 2013, claiming that the bike racks had caused a nuisance, diminished property values, and violated the city’s own rules for such standards as sidewalk width. That case is pending at New York State Supreme Court.
“These stations attract vermin and garbage,” says Jeffrey Barr, an attorney who represents Left Bank Apartment Corporation and 99 Bank Street. “The theory is that it is costing more than $100 in economic damage based on an environmental issue.” He notes that after the suit was filed, the city removed some bike racks but placed a large granite stanchion near the remaining racks, presumably as a traffic barrier. “It’s a huge eyesore,” he says.
Dani Simons, spokeswoman for New York City Bike Share, which runs the Citi Bike program, says she cannot comment on any legal issues. But she does report that the bike stations are cleaned by power-washing every two weeks, and graffiti and stickers are removed. She could not say how many bike stations have been moved since the program’s inception, but notes that they are moved for a variety of reasons.
“The most common one this week seems to be emergency Con Ed work,” she says. “We live in a big, complex city, and there are a number of competing demands on our streets. One of the reasons our system was chosen for New York is that our stations are not hardwired into the ground and therefore can be relocated if there are street repairs, construction, or other reasons to relocate them.”
Board members and attorneys for some of the co-ops and condos involved in litigation say they had no idea the bike share stations were coming until they were installed or building operators were told they were coming. The city counters that the DOT held 159 public bike share meetings, presentations, and demonstrations starting in September 2011, plus another 230 meetings with elected officials, property owners, and other stakeholders.
A Case for Going Small
Another tactic lawyers are using to try to evict the bike stations is the argument that the DOT failed to perform any environmental impact studies. Government rules stipulate that if a project could cause pollution, a study must be done. The city insisted that because the bikes don’t cause pollution, a study was not needed. Shore, the attorney, counters that the bikes themselves don’t cause pollution, but the placement of the stations does. “We have two traffic lanes that have to merge into one where the bike station is,” he says. “That creates a lot of traffic and pollution problems.” He adds that the bike station at 175 West 13th Street should be located across the street. (This argument was also rejected by Judge Kern.)
Barr also argues that the placement of the Citi Bike stations is fundamentally unfair in other ways. “They’ve burdened these historic neighborhoods with these gargantuan bike racks,” he says. “If they want to change one brick on the surface of their building, they have to go through an elaborate process. Essentially, they have turned these neighborhoods into giant Citibank advertisements.”
According to Barr, it would make more sense and be more convenient to put in smaller stations. “The guidelines don’t require them to be 25-bike stations,” he says, “but very few locations have smaller stations.”
Another co-op, 150 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn, which also pursued and lost an Article 78 challenge, has not decided yet whether to appeal. Safety was the co-op’s main complaint, says Ken Wasserman, a board member. The bike racks are situated such that to use the bikes, riders must pull them out onto the sidewalk. Instead of walking the bikes to the corner, which is the legal way, Wasserman says most riders pedal on the sidewalk. “We have several schools nearby, and there are lots and lots of kids,” he says. “It’s the law to ride on the street, but no one enforces it. You shouldn’t have to look over your shoulder if you are walking on the sidewalk.”
The issue may soon be academic, however. In late March, news reports surfaced that NYC Bike Share was seeking millions in investment to keep its program going. Annual memberships are strong, with about 100,000 people paying $95 to use the bikes for 45 minutes at a time, but single-use ridership is stagnating. The company that makes the equipment went bankrupt at the beginning of the year, and the executive who launched the program left in March.
Nonetheless, NYC Bike Share officials remain optimistic. Its parent company, Alta Bicycle Share, is seeking investors to expand Citi Bike to 600 stations and 10,000 bikes. They anticipate raising up to $20 million to try and make that happen.
When asked if it will be difficult to lure investors when the bikes are already branded for Citibank – spelling out Citi Bike in Citibank’s distinctive font and style – she says private investors are not the same as sponsors. “We do, however, feel that there are aspects of this program, beyond the bikes themselves, that have sponsorship potential,” she adds, declining to elaborate.
Meanwhile, in early spring, the program logged its eight millionth ride.
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