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Followup: Masaryk Towers Closes Rivington Street Walkway (Updated)

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We have more this afternoon on the decision by Masaryk Towers to close the passageway on Rivington Street that cuts through the co-operative complex. As we first reported Friday, the move is not sitting well with many Masaryk neighbors, including Grand Street Settlement.

A short time ago, we spoke with Mitch Magidson, general manager of the subsidized housing project. In a statement, he said, “The gate closure is one of the many measures Masaryk has taken to ensure the safety and security of its residents; and while it will take some time getting used to, we trust that our neighbors will understand Masaryk’s decision.”

The Rivington Street walkway has always been a convenient way to travel between Columbia Street and Pitt Street. Robert Cordero, executive director of Grand Street Settlement, says his concerns about the closure go beyond convenience. The social service organization runs a large senior program from its headquarters at 80 Pitt St. (just to the west of the Rivington gate). Now senior citizens from the Baruch Houses on Columbia Street will have a more difficult time reaching the center.

This afternoon, Cordero told us he understands Masaryk’s decision, which was made due to security concerns and to curb lawsuits. But more than a year ago, Cordero said, he and City Council member Rosie Mendez were both assured by Masaryk that they’d be given plenty of advance warning before the closure. Instead, Cordero said, he was given less than 24 hours notice. “The (Masaryk) board obviously made a conscious decision not to inform the community,” said Cordero. After more than 40 years as neighbors with the settlement House, “I would think Masaryk would show more regard for this community.”

About 50 seniors attend Grand Street programs daily (including a subsidized lunch program). Around half of those using the settlement house’s senior center are Masaryk Towers residents. Cordero said he’s working to arrange for shuttle bus service for Lower East Side senior residents, but this service will be dependent on future City Council funding (the news fiscal year begins in July).

Magidson said all Masaryk residents were given key fobs and an intercom system is linked to each resident via telephone. A 24 hour security guard on Columbia Street is prepared to deal with any emergencies that come up. The board, said Magidson, deliberated for some time about ways to accommodate Grand Street’s seniors. Unfortunately, he explained, there’s no real way to make exceptions for them while keeping the walkway secure for Masaryk residents. “Our number one concern” he said, “is the safety of our residents.” He also said the risk of lawsuits had become so high that obtaining insurance for the co-op had become extremely difficult.

Grand Street Settlement has started a petition against the handling of the gate issue. It’s available in the lobby of 80 Pitt St. through this week.

UPDATE 4:49 p.m. Here’s more from City Council member Rosie Mendez, who has been dealing with the Masaryk gate issue since 2006. Years ago, Masaryk Towers received funding for complex-wide renovations, including sidewalk repairs. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Mendez said, encouraged building management to shut down the walkway as a way of controlling spiraling insurance costs. Mendez had serious concerns about closing the gates. After a series of meetings, she said, the board agreed to keep them open at specific (high traffic) times of the day. That was about a decade ago. Mendez said she received no advance warning about the closure last week. She reminded Board President Bernice McCallum about the longstanding agreement. McCallum, Mendez indicated, did not recall the specifics of that agreement and is now looking through board minutes. A meeting between Masaryk leadership and local elected officials is in the works. Mendez said she also wants to explore whether a passageway on Stanton Street can be reopened (it was obstructed by the expansion of a school basketball court a few years ago). The Council member indicated that Grand Street Settlement’s request for shuttle bus funding has gone through many changes. It’s wrapped up in a larger request for building renovations to the organization’s flagship building.

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