Second Avenue subway causes strife

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As the Second Avenue subway inches toward completion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it continues to devastate tenants and businesses in its path.

Residents are losing their homes and stores are losing business to the $4.5-billion subway, which will run along Second Avenue from 96th Street to 63rd Street and open in 2017.

By most accounts, it has all been a nightmare.

Ann and Conrad Riedi found out three years ago that under the Metropolitan Transit Authority had planned to seize their apartment on the corner of Second Avenue and 83rd Street — and 48 others on the Upper East Side — to make way for the subway.

The MTA bought the Riedis’ building in October, and the couple expects to be gone by April.

“How many times have we cried?” asked Ann Riedi, 65. “How many times have we said, ‘They are taking away our home’?”

The Riedis moved into their third-floor walk-up in 1967. They lost their first child and raised two daughters in the apartment. Conrad Riedi, 76, recovered from triple bypass surgery in their home.

Ann recalled the day her girls tried to flush the family cat down the toilet and the time her father-in-law — in his old age — walked across Central Park from his Upper West Side retirement home and showed up at their door in the middle of the night.

“How do you replace 42 years of marriage and memories?” Ann said.

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Most of the couple’s belongings are in boxes. Bookshelves are empty. Walls are bare. Christmas decorations the Riedis usually would have on display are packed.

Where the Riedis will unpack remains a mystery.

“It is kind of scary because we don’t know,” Ann said.

The MTA hired a relocation agency to help nearly 150 residents find new homes. Half of them are already in new places, according to MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. Others like the Riedis have not found apartments comparable in price or size.

The Riedis’ place is old — the paint is peeling, the walls are smudged and the floors are creaky — but it is cheap and big. They pay $1,120 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. Conrad’s social security payments cover most of the rent, and the money he makes answering phones part-time at a nearby church covers the rest.

The couple’s relocation agent referred them to a $2,500 a month, two-bedroom apartment on 75th Street and York Avenue. The Riedis were not impressed.

Under the 1970 Federal Uniform Act, the MTA is only required to provide displaced renters $5,250 over three and a half years. Ortiz said the MTA has provided “much more compensation” than that. He said the MTA set aside $10 million for relocation expenses. How much money each tenant receives varies from case to case, according to Ortiz.

The Riedis would not divulge how much money the MTA offered them, but their lawyer said it is hardly enough for the Riedis to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.

“We don’t believe the MTA is operating in good faith, period,” said George Locker, the couple’s attorney. “They don’t care about rent-regulated people.”

Locker said he has taken the MTA to court twice to appeal the amount the agency offered his clients.

The Riedis want to stay in the Upper East Side — now one of the wealthiest residential areas in New York City — if money will allow. Ann said leaving the neighborhood would be like “getting used to a whole new routine.”

A new routine is exactly what 88-year-old Madelaine Andrews is hoping for. In the spring she will have to leave her studio apartment on Second Avenue and 72nd Street, where she has lived for 45 years, to make way for a new subway entrance.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Andrews said. “At least I’ll be out. I’ve been cooped up here for one year.”

Andrews’ legs gave out unexpectedly almost a year ago. She hasn’t been outside the building since because she can’t walk down the stairs.

That has made apartment-hunting a challenge.

Andrews said the relocation agency promised to help her find new places to live but that they aren’t as involved as she had hoped.

“They are (helping) a little bit,” she said. “But they depend on us to find them. It’s tough when you can’t walk.”

Andrews said the agency found a studio apartment in a building with an elevator on Third Avenue and 86th Street that is half the size and nearly four times the rent. Andrews currently pays $300 a month. Rent at the new place is $1,120. She called that “beyond unsatisfactory.”

Andrews lives alone. Her second husband died 10 years ago and she does not have family in New York City. Andrews relies on her personal care attendant to run errands and finish household chores, but she is navigating the moving process on her own.

“I’ve been sitting here so long, anxious and nervous,” Andrews said. “It’s the kind of thing you can’t help. I sit here and wait. When they say waiting is the hardest part, it’s true.”

Shop owners on Second Avenue know a thing or two about waiting. Those between 96th Street and 90th Street have endured two and a half years of subway construction.

And it continues.

The area outside their stores looks and sounds like an amusement park. The cranes and cement trucks are the rides and the construction workers are the costumed characters. The passersby who dodge open pits in the street are the park-goers. Sounds of metal grinding on metal are the clicks of carts climbing the peaks of roller coasters. The yells from site managers are the excited voices of young girls and boys.

But unlike a real amusement park, the one on Second Avenue is not fun.

The construction continues to have a major impact on businesses already suffering in the midst of a recession. Scaffolding obscures storefronts, fences block doors and loud noises deter customers.

JP Chung, the owner of Normandie Wines Inc. on Second Avenue and 94th Street said his profits are down 30 percent since construction began.

“Everywhere is down, down, down,” Chung said. “No foot traffic. They say, ‘Sorry, I can’t use your store anymore.’ ”

Construction is causing multiple problems for Carnegie East House — an enriched living facility for the elderly on Second Avenue and 95th Street. Executive Director Joseph Girven said his senior residents can’t navigate through the detours. He said once winter weather comes into play, it will be twice as difficult for them to get around. He also said the place is losing money because people are moving out.

“The vacancy rate is higher than we’d like it to be, and that’s mostly because of construction,” Girven said.

Fifteen businesses have closed since construction began, according to Second Avenue shop owners. Employees who work at stores next to new construction sites admit their stores probably won’t last, either.

Construction began near Robert Ha’s fruit market on the corner of Second Avenue and 86th Street two months ago.

“If it stays for a year, we’ll have to close,” Ha said.

In 2008, Giuseppe Pecora, owner of the restaurant Delizia on Second Avenue and 92nd Street, formed a coalition called Save Our Stores. He hosted forums for frustrated business owners to air their concerns to city leaders.

Now Pecora is losing faith elected officials can do anything to help.

“I’m disgusted at meetings because they talk so much and do so little,” Pecora said. “All the businesses have given up. Not enough is being done.”

Community leaders have acknowledged the hardships Second Avenue stores are facing. Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Assemblyman Micah Kellner, State Senator Liz Krueger and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney have requested aid for the businesses. But proposals to provide tax abatement for struggling shops have failed in Albany and Washington.

The MTA launched a campaign called “Shop Second Avenue” to remind customers that businesses along the construction zone are still open. The campaign consists of signs that hang on fences outside the affected stores and pamphlets that list open shops.

Ortiz said the MTA understands business owners are being inconvenienced by the construction but that long-term benefits will outweigh the current difficulties.

“Increasing the number of people who travel through Second Avenue will certainly help draw customers to businesses along Second Avenue and help grow their businesses upon completion of construction,” Ortiz said.

Business owners don’t see that happening anytime soon.

When crews broke ground in April 2007, the MTA estimated the subway would be open by 2012. The MTA quickly pushed the date back five years to 2017. Now many people doubt the MTA will meet that deadline. Too many memories linger about the MTA’s botched attempts to build the subway in the 1970s.

“One guy told me, ‘You won’t even be here when it’s finished,’ ” said 54-year-old John Diaz, a landlord on Second Avenue.

The uncertainty over the MTA’s completion date is confusing the dozen business owners whose stores have to be demolished for the subway.

Perry Falk said the MTA bought his store Falk Surgical in October, but the agency has not given him a move-out date.

“At first you get no answers, and then when you go further you realize there are no answers,” Falk said.

Falk Surgical opened on Second Avenue and 72nd Street in 1959. Falk said customers commute from Brooklyn and Queens to buy products like back braces, canes and wheelchairs. Falk is frustrated that he can’t update loyal patrons on a new location.

“They are asking me where I’m moving,” Falk said. “(I tell them) I don’t know. When I do know, believe me it will not be a secret.”

Employees who work at other stores slated for demolition like Nick’s, Patsy’s and Da Filippio don’t know their eviction dates either.

Ortiz admitted the MTA has not determined when those businesses will have to leave.

The MTA eventually plans to add on to the Second Avenue subway by building stops from 125th Street to the southern tip of Manhattan. According to Ortiz, “there is no money” in place for subway expansion.

Now business owners in Harlem and Lower Manhattan who are on the MTA’s list wonder if their stores will actually be affected.

“A lot of people are saying the subway is coming, but I don’t have anything concrete,” said Nikoloa Nicaj, owner of Eagle Home Center on Second Avenue and 116th Street. “It’s not good. If it’s going to happen soon, we should have known.”

As the subway inches closer to completion the MTA continues to tout its benefits — it will carry more than 200,000 passengers a day, reduce overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue line and provide better access to mass transit for residents on the East Side.

Ortiz said the project is an “economic driver” during the recession and has already created thousands of construction jobs. He said the subway is an investment that will yield significant returns for New York City.

Conrad and Ann Riedi

Conrad and Ann Riedi

In a city of 8 million people, only a fraction continue to be burdened by the Second Avenue subway. That is not a justification Ann Riedi can condone.

“Its only 40, 50, 60 apartments — how do you say that?” she said with tears in her eyes. “People are losing their homes.”


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Ben says:

Thank you for the excellent article. In particular I liked how you compared the subway construction zone in the 90s with an amusement park – which created a visual image of sorts that helped your readers to visualize what the work zone might look like.

People interested in further details on the 2nd Avenue Subway project should follow this link:
“The Launch Box”
A Blog about Building
the Second Avenue Subway


Ron Aryel says:

I sympathize with the elderly who will undoubtedly have some difficulty leaving long-established homes and toutines and have to get used to new ones. I have no doubt that relocating a business from one location to another means losing some customers who will not or cannot patronize the new location (my family member is going through that now in another city).
However, the tone and substance of your blog appears to be exaggeration, whining, bellyaching. No, it’s not a universal nightmare; in fact access to business and buildings is much better on this public works project that it was on several others I can remember, including the Vine St Expressway in Philadelphia (I lived next to that one). I know you feel the need to vent, but I would prefer reading about constructive solutions and ideas that you and other bloggers can think up rather than endless and mostly mindless whining. You’ll do everybody, including yourself, a huge favor.

Jessica Malcolm says:

Thank you for an interesting and illuminating article. Having read Mr. Aryel’s comments, I feel compelled to disagree with the assertion that exposing the hardships of residents affected by the 2nd Ave Subway project amounts only to “mindless whining” and “bellyaching”.
At no point in the article does the author claim this issue to be a universal nightmare. In fact, it is clearly recognized that only a fraction of New Yorkers will be burdened by the project. The article quotes several residents and business owners who have had negative experiences, and the fact that the majority of the population is not affected does not minimize the importance of the few who are.
Constructive solutions will only come when people are made aware of the problem. It appears as though you’re the one who feels the need to vent, Mr. Aryel, and perhaps you’d be doing yourself a favor by contributing constructive ideas rather than undermining the news that will foster them.

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