On Brink of Demolition, Rector Street Bridge at Center of Dispute

The Rector Street Bridge spans the eight lanes of West Street. In the foreground, pedestrians cross the northbound lanes at Albany Street. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Nov. 12, 2019

With the Rector Street Bridge due for demolition within the next few months, defenders of the “temporary” 17-year-old structure came to Community Board 1’s Transportation Committee last week to call for a reprieve. 

“It turns out that if you were starting over, almost certainly people would build a bridge at Rector Street rather than the other bridge,” said Battery Park City resident and CB1 member Robert Schneck, who for months has been leading a quixotic campaign to save the bridge.

The “other bridge” is the newly completed $45.5 million West Thames Street Bridge, less than two blocks south and planned years ago as the permanent replacement of the Rector Street Bridge, which went up in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The bridges span West Street between Battery Park City and the Financial District.

Schneck fears for the safety of the Rector Street Bridge’s users who will choose to cross the busy highway at nearby Albany Street rather than walk to the new bridge, which is a less direct route to subway lines. 

One of the bridge advocates, Battery Park City resident Amy Silver, told the committee she uses the Rector Street Bridge “almost every day” because it’s the quickest way to get to where she wants to go, “especially a day like today where it’s dark, cold and rainy. Or if I’m in a hurry to get somewhere.” 

“As an alternative I would use Albany Street,” she added. “I feel like it’s better than going over to West Thames Street.”

Silver was typical of many of the 1,800 people who have signed Schneck’s save-the-Rector Street Bridge petition, which also has the support of Councilwoman Margaret Chin. But their advocacy has pitted them against Battery Park City gardeners whose Liberty Community Gardens is just north of the bridge. Once the bridge ramp is removed, the number of gardeners could increase by nearly a third.

“I’m surprised that 15 years later we’re still talking about the bridge because I’ve been working for almost 15 years for expanding the community gardens, which is what’s going to happen when the bridge comes down,” said Mike McCormack, the gardens’ president, noting that there are 40 people on the gardens wait list.

“Nobody likes having to walk 100 feet further than they have to,” McCormack added, “but if you value your safety it’s not really that far.”

“I find it difficult to understand that a bridge that provides a safe route across the highway for a lot of people who live in a very dense part of Battery Park City is supposed to be taken down for a community garden,” responded an Albany Street resident. 

But the gardeners were not the only ones on hand to buttress the long-standing plan to take down the state-owned bridge, a project to be overseen by the city. 

Douglas Adams, from the Mayor’s Office, acknowledged that some people will make the less safe decision to cross West Street at grade rather than use the new bridge. “But there are many other factors to consider along with these,” he said. Among them, he noted, the bridge does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, it stands too close to the Metropolitan College of New York’s fire exit at 60 West St., and the footing of the bridge on the west side are on top of vital underground utilities.

“Many of these are serious issues that were waived due to the bridge’s temporary nature,” he said. 

Adams was backed up by officials from the city’s Economic Development Corp. and the New York State Department of Transportation.

“We brought in the modules and connected them with nuts and bolts unlike any other major permanent structure,” said Shilpan Patel of the state DOT. And unlike the Rector Street Bridge, he said, a permanent structure has a deep foundation.

Some members of the committee questioned the temporary status of a bridge that has been in service for so long. “Seventeen years does not seem very temporary to me. And over the years people have come to rely on this. Right?” said Elizabeth Lewinsohn. 

But chairwoman Betty Kay maintained that the risks of keeping the bridge up outweigh those of taking it down.

“The complexities haven’t really changed and they’re pretty overwhelming,” she said. “Hence, we would be pitting one group against another. It is not even an option to have the people at Metropolitan College put at great risk because some people don’t want to walk a block from one bridge to another bridge on the Battery Park City side.”

But in a phone interview a few days after the meeting, Schneck said he’s not giving up. He largely dismisses the claims of the unsafe conditions caused by the bridge—claims he said he heard for the first time at the meeting.

“When it comes to safety the Fire Department and other government agencies don’t allow truly unsafe things to even happen,” he said. “They say it’s because of 9/11, but they wouldn’t allow a big hole in the sidewalk to exist because it’s too dangerous.”

The bridge should stay up for as long as possible, Schneck insisted. “And in the meantime, kind of bandage it up until we come up with creative ways to keep the thing there.

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Save Rector St. Bridge and make safety and well-being first

People who cross a bridge trust that it is safe; that it is built to proper standards; that it is inspected by engineers for reliability; that it meets neighborhood needs; that it is a permanent public asset.

The majority of the residents, workers, visitors and students crossing the Rector Street Bridge were not living or working in the area 17 years ago. They had no chance of knowing that the bridge was “temporary;” that there was a planned “bridge-trade” upon the completion of the West Thames Bridge; that the Rector Bridge construction confiscated garden plots; would block a recently located college entrance; waived and compromised fire and utility safety regulations; did not anticipate a 17 year time lag or substantial cost over-runs at the second bridge site; that the economics of running the Rector Bridge ridge were not adequately planned; that the maintenance for the “temporary” structure entails renovations and costs.The planners, constructors and approvers must answer for these problems not the bridge users.

New Yorkers accept a certain time anxiety with their lifestyle. They are constantly under the gun to get to work; arrive at school; visit doctors; meet commitments; and rush along with their lives. They flow like water down the path of least resistance to arrive where they need to go. Some may be in pain, some blind, some old or disabled or young and vulnerable, or simply in an unending rush––but it is not fair to insist that any inconvenience be imposed on them. Their safety and well-being must always be first.

The Rector Bridge links Battery Park City and Wall Street with the most efficient walking corridor of subways, public transportation and ferries, perhaps in the nation. Many residents chose to live and work here because of this. They certainly do not see the West Thames Bridge as a replacement of the Rector Street Bridge, and they are willing to face and accept the dangers of an Albany intersection crossing if they lose their community bridge. How is our Vision Zero city planning to accommodate this additional exposure; the increasing volume of residents, tourists and workers over time; and the inevitable drunk and distracted drivers?

The planners, constructors and approvers that built the two bridges owe the public a complete explanation of how the current safety, cost, and reliability issues developed. They owe the neighborhood timely notice and the delivery of services that residents are paying their taxes for. Isn’t the public entitled to elevators that work without demanding? Isn’t the public ensured that a bridge wouldn’t be built without an eye to the future and that it would not compromise a single safety regulation?

We the People of this Community are entitled to the best work and thinking of the professionals and electeds who work for and govern us. We are entitled to assume that bridges and their related conditions are safe for us and for everyone, and that we are appropriately informed of these public matters at all times.

Why can’t our leaders and professionals engage our community to bring together our collective best thinking to preserve the Rector Street Bridge? Because, after all, we’re the best and most capable city in the world, aren’t we?

If you wish to help preserve the Rector Street Bridge, please add your name to the electronic petition at http://chng.it/5Vyjt4dk (if you haven’t signed a print petition). Or you may speak out at Community Board 1’s November meeting conveniently located at Battery Park City School, IS-PS 276, 55 Battery Place this Thursday at 6:00pm.   BOB SCHNECK