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Subway accessibility upgrades should be funded through expanded zoning measures: lawmakers

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Changes could make it easier for the MTA to partner with developers on upgrades

A man wearing a suit in a wheelchair in front of an elevator.
Expanding zoning tools could make it so developers foot the bill for more subway accessibility upgrades.
Adam Rountree/AP

City lawmakers want the de Blasio administration to expand zoning requirements and incentives so the MTA can more easily partner with private developers on making subway stations accessible.

The City Council issued a 24-page report Friday recommending ways the Department of City Planning (DCP) could help the cash-strapped MTA pick up the pace to make its 493 subway and Staten Island Railway stations comply with federal accessibility laws. The city’s zoning code currently requires or offers bonuses to private developers to make costly entrance and elevator upgrades at stations near their developments, but these tools are only available in select parts of the city and often require projects to go through the city’s cumbersome land use review process.

Now, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Councilmembers Rafael Salamanca, Francisco Moya, and Margaret Chin are calling on the city to expand the zoning to better coordinate private development with improving transit accessibility for all New Yorkers.

“Zoning is a tool that the City has within our control and with stronger and more widely applied zoning tools, we can ensure that developers who build near subway stations coordinate with the MTA and help deliver the station improvements like elevators that we so desperately need,” Johnson said in a statement.

Existing zoning requires developers behind a station-adjacent private project to consult with the MTA to determine whether easements—the right for the MTA to utilize part of their property—would help improve station accessibility. In another instance, DCP created a new mechanism as part of the 2017 Midtown East rezoning to allow certain sites to obtain additional floor area for the projects in exchange for specific transit improvements. JPMorgan’s new headquarters, planned at 270 Park Avenue, is the neighborhood’s first project to take advantage of the option with upgrades to a subway station and street improvements.

If requirements or incentives such as these are broadened across the five boroughs, hundreds of million of MTA capital dollars could be saved and go toward helping additional stations enhance their accessibility, the council’s report says.

To do this, lawmakers’ suggest that the city extend easement requirements throughout the system, expand and expedite the special permit process that grants developers a building bonus for subway improvements and widen eligibility to sites that are not station-adjacent, and ensure strict standards and penalties are in place for private property owners to maintain the transit improvements they install. The lawmakers say they are also exploring legislation to increase enforcement for landlords who fail to maintain those spaces.

The City Council says it will work with DCP and the MTA toward these goal. Andy Byford, the president of MTA New York City Transit, says he “welcomes” the initiative. DCP director Marisa Lago also gave the Council’s idea her blessing and says she “looks forward to working” with the council, the MTA, and accessibility advocates on the possible changes.

As zoning proposals are refined, lawmakers plan to convene “roundtable discussions” on how best to approach the effort with disability and transit advocates, developers, and technical experts.