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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Disability Rights Advocates File Lawsuit Claiming Roosevelt Island FDR Four Freedoms Park Denies Freedom Of Access To People With Disabilities

Last May, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the Roosevelt Island FDR Four Freedoms Park, designed by architect Louis Kahn, was inaccessible to the disabled community and according to the NY Times:

... the city is withholding a permanent certificate of occupancy and hundreds of thousands of dollars in financing until the matter is resolved....
On March 16, the Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) filed a lawsuit claiming that the FDR Four Freedoms Park, a:
... Site dedicated to freedom denies freedom of access to people with disabilities...
According to the DRA complaint, the lawsuit seeks:
... to rectify the systemic, discriminatory exclusion of persons with mobility disabilities from full and equal access to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park (“FDR Memorial”), New York City’s recently built monument commemorating our 32nd President....
DRA reports:
In 2012, New York City welcomed the opening of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island. Yet FDR, the President it commemorates who used a wheelchair for mobility, would have struggled to take in its dramatic beauty, as the monument begins and ends with steps.

Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a non-profit legal center, filed a class action lawsuit today in federal court on behalf of individuals with mobility disabilities alleging that the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy are blatantly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Plaintiffs, including the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled (BCID) and several New York City residents who use wheelchairs, allege they are unable to access the Memorial in violation of long established law.

Plaintiff Edith Prentiss at the Four Freedoms Park. Photo by Joe Rappaport.

Accessibility barriers pervade the FDR Memorial in its entirety, including a large flight of stairs leading up to the entrance of the Monument. While paths exist around the base of the memorial, they circumvent the bulk of the monument and are comprised of uneven stones that make travel difficult for manual or power chair users. After traveling an unreasonably long distance down a side route, a chair user must begin an arduous back-tracking ascent up a path made of gravel to appreciate the vistas in the same way a non-wheelchair user can do.

At the opposite end of the FDR Memorial is a sunken terrace that provides an uninterrupted view of the East River, known in architecture as a ha-ha wall. Yet steps block wheelchair users from reaching that point. Plaintiffs also cite an inaccessible gift shop and non-ADA compliant restrooms.

Plaintiff Edith Prentiss, who uses a wheelchair due to her mobility disability, has visited the Memorial many times but has never been able to explore the terrace. “I’ve heard that those who run the park say that we can just enjoy the view afforded by the sunken terrace from elsewhere,” she said. “I find that offensive in the ‘back of the bus’ sort of way. I feel like they’ve prioritized their own aesthetics over our right to visit the Memorial, and are now waving away our concerns by saying: ‘What you got is good enough anyway.’ It’s not.”

Phil Beder, also a Plaintiff who uses a wheelchair says, “I am an FDR buff. He’s my hero. It’s patently ironic that a Memorial built in honor of him is rife with barriers for wheelchair users. Frankly, it makes me both mad and sad.”

“In a park dedicated to freedom, the choice to deny freedom of access to people with disabilities is just plain wrong,” said Joseph G. Rappaport, BCID’s Executive Director. “Denying the right of people with disabilities from enjoying the park fully isn’t in keeping with FDR’s life and legacy.”

“The Memorial was built very recently, decades after the ADA, and New York State should know better. We can’t figure out what they were thinking, but to leave it as is would give unfettered license to continue building important public spaces with no regard for the civil rights of persons with disabilities,” said Michelle Caiola, Litigation Director at DRA.

The suit seeks injunctive relief towards remedying all elements of inaccessibility allowing visitors with mobility impairments to visit the Memorial on equal terms with everyone else. A copy of the Complaint is available below.
A link to the copy of the complaint is available at bottom of DRA post.

Google maps shows us the sunken terrace steps in the FDR Park's Memorial's Room that the lawsuit alleges is inaccessible to the disabled

and the full view of FDR Four Freedoms Park.

According to DRA attorney Jelena Kolic, attempts to communicate with the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy to discuss disabled persons accessibility at the FDR Park were not returned resulting in the lawsuit.

I asked the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy for comment on the lawsuit. A spokesperson replied:
We have not had the opportunity to fully review the class action suit. Four Freedoms Park is – and always has been – committed to accessibility for people with disabilities. We take accessibility issues very seriously and strive to meet the needs of all of our visitors.

FDR Four Freedoms Park takes accessibility issues very seriously, and we welcome dialogue about how we can meet the needs of the many visitors we receive each year.
According to a May 10, 2016 NY Times article:
... Sally Minard, the president and chief executive of the conservancy, said the use of ramps had been thoroughly explored. But it would present its own drawbacks.

Railings would have to be installed along the ramps and behind benches that are now sheer slabs of Mount Airy granite, set off against monumental blocks of the same whitish-gray stone. This would compromise the Kahn design, which the conservancy tried to follow as faithfully as possible.

“The consequences of doing it — for everyone’s experience — seemed to outweigh the value,” Ms. Minard said. “The decision was not seen as a problem because we believed then, as we do now, that the park more than meets the requirements for accessibility for those with a disability, and that the memorial as a whole is A.D.A. compliant.”...
Roosevelt Island Historical Society President Judy Berdy commenting on a previous post noted:
For many years, we told the FDR park designers. In those days the architect from Mitchell-Gurgula, Ms. Minard and Mr. Vanden Heuvel ignored the community concern over disabled access.
The Roosevelt Island Disabled Association and FDR Hope Memorial Committee are leading an effort to install a sculpture depicting FDR in a wheelchair at Southpoint Park,

close to the entrance of the FDR Four Freedoms Park.