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Masaryk Towers Rejects Pleas to Reconsider Rivington Street Closure

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State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh and Grand Street Settlement Executive Director Robert Cordero at a May 18 rally.
State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh and Grand Street Settlement Executive Director Robert Cordero at a May 18 rally.

According to Grand Street Settlement, Masaryk Towers has rejected pleas to make accommodations for local residents impacted by the closure of the co-op’s Rivington Street gates.

As we first reported May 5, the large Mitchell Lama complex made the decision to restrict access due to insurance liability and safety concerns. The walkway is a convenient short cut for people walking between Columbia and Pitt streets. Grand Street Settlement operates youth and senior programs from its center at 80 Pitt St. Many of their program participants (including residents of the Baruch Houses) must now walk around to Houston or Delancey streets.

Leaders of the settlement house met with Masaryk Towers management, offering to expand Grand street’s insurance policy to alleviate the co-op board’s concerns. A rally was held this past Thursday to keep the pressure up, but it apparently had little effect. Grand Street Executive Director Robert Cordero received a letter from Masaryk Towers Board President Bernice McCallum today. Here it is:

The Masaryk Towers’ recent gate closure is one of many measures we have taken to ensure the safety and security of our residents. For many years, Masaryk has had serious problems with criminal activities, including the proliferation of illicit drug usage and distribution, alcohol and vandalism, largely attributable to non-residents. The quality of life has declined, with litter and garbage left by passersby, rowdy groups hanging out on the benches, in the halls and stairways, with beer cans, bottles and trash left everywhere.

Some of these problems were exacerbated several years ago when NYCHA removed benches from the adjacent Gompers Houses and Baruch Houses. Bikes, mopeds and electric bikes (especially in the past few years) speeding through, have terrorized Masaryk residents, particularly children, seniors and the infirm, and have caused injuries (many serious). People have walked through with leashed or unleashed dogs and in many cases, have not cleaned up after their pets have defecated on our walkways and grass.

Over the years, we have tried to deal with these problems in various ways, including posting signs and hiring additional security at great cost to us, but things have spiraled out of control. It should be noted that the portion of Rivington Street passing through Masaryk Towers was ceded by the City of New York to Masaryk when it was built fifty years ago (it was de-mapped and does not appear as a city street on official NYC maps).

While the idea of installing gates at either end of the walkway was discussed on and off during the last fifty years, it was first seriously discussed approximately twelve years ago. Through the years since then, objective conditions prevented us from closing the walkway to the public. However, in the recent past the situation has deteriorated to the point that we had no choice but to allow entry to Masaryk by residents and their guests only.

In the short time since the gates have been closed, these offensive activities cited above have virtually disappeared. Masaryk residents feel safer walking the grounds and entering their buildings. Late-night congregation on the benches has abated. The grounds are cleaner, residents are picking up trash that blows around and people feel more comfortable sitting on the benches. The final issue remains Masaryk’s attempts to limit our exposure to liability.

Numerous trip-and-fall claims by non-residents have resulted in costly lawsuits. Unfortunately, no amount of additional insurance can prevent the continued liability Masaryk would face with future incidents. While we understand that some of our neighbors will be inconvenienced and that it will take some time to acclimate to the closing, we trust that our neighbors will understand Masaryk’s decision. We are willing to work with interested parties to get Stanton Street (between Columbia Street and Pitt Street) reopened to pedestrian traffic.

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This afternoon, leaders of Grand Street Settlement say they are planning their next steps. Today’s response from Masaryk Towers, they say, has only strengthened the settlement house’s resolve and they have no intention of hacking down. A petition has been signed by about 1,000 people. At last week’s rally, Cordero said, “This is not a rally against Masaryk Towers. We understand their rights. We are just asking for access for our seniors and children.” Cordero added, “We want to be good neighbors and we want to keep our community safe.”

Others spoke, as well, including Raul Ramos, a longtime resident of the Baruch Houses and a youth sports coach. “I have an uncle who lives in 72 Columbia,” said Ramos, “who has not been able to attend (Grand street’s senior program) for the past two weeks because he is in a walker, he can barely walk through the Rivington Street path.”  Ramos added, “If we boycott (Masaryk Towers’) storefronts, they will have no choice but to open those gates for us, for the safe passage of the elderly and the children of this community.”

State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh took a turn at the microphone, stating, “We’ve all (meaning elected officials) been asking basic questions of Masaryk Towers about why they think this is necessary and what is a better solution for this community than closing the gates, preventing people from moving directly from where they live to where they need to be every day.”

Jasmin Sanchez rallies at Masaryk Towers May 10.
City Council candidate Jasmin Sanchez rallies at Masaryk Towers May 10.
At the podium, City Council candidate Carlina Rivera.
At the podium, City Council candidate Carlina Rivera.

Jasmin Sanchez, a City Council candidate called the closure “cruel,” and told community members, “We stand with Grand Street Settlement to ensure that our seniors have daily access to the hot meals they need.” On May 10, she staged another rally outside Masaryk towers’ gates, threatening a boycott of the co-op’s commercial tenants. On Thursday, she told us that boycott would begin next month if Masaryk doesn’t relent.

Carlina Rivera, also a City Council candidate, said that several other Mitchell Lama developments in the immediate area maintain open walkways. “What we have here,,” she argued, “is an unbelievable example of miscommunication and mistrust, quite frankly, by Masaryk Towers… All we want is a pathway to get from a to b…. I hope people understand that we are on the right side right now of justice. This is about being able to walk in your own community.”

We have contacted Masaryk Towers’ general manager for more information. We’ll let you know if the co-op has any more to say on the topic.

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