Union square

Union Square subway entrance is a smelly mess despite Ritzy private ownership

At Zeckendorf Towers, the 29-story condominium on the southeast side of Union Square, a one-bedroom rental costs more than $6,000 a month and apartments are on the market for nearly 3.4 millions of dollars.

Downstairs, however, at the entrance to a urine-stinking station, tube riders had to walk the stairs past escalators that were out of service for much of the year, earning owner the latest in a string of four-figure violations and fines.

“I’m homeless and wouldn’t sleep there,” said Sureno Williams, 45, who was smoking a cigarette near the entrance last week.

The 14th Street entrance to the city’s fourth-busiest subway station and its two escalators are serviced by Zeckendorf, a 645-unit apartment building whose opening in 1987 helped transform Union Square from shabby chic.

But the grimy walkway, along with MTA statistics documenting that the escalators have been among the worst-performing in the subway system for years, underscores the issues the transit agency faces with private owners tasked with running it. maintenance of around 150 entrances across the 472 station network.

There are 42 escalators and 56 private elevators in the metro. In contrast, New York City Transit is responsible for 233 escalators and 294 elevators.


Maintenance requirements for the 14th Street-Union Square station entrance and machinery grew out of a zoning agreement that dates back to 1985: the Planning Commission gave developer Bill Zeckendorf a bonus 153,006 feet squares in exchange for building stair entrances in the 14th and 15th Street station, keeping the 14th Street escalators in working order and providing an elevator shaft, according to city records.

But from April 2021 through March, MTA figures show one escalator was out of service 72% of the time and the other had an uptime rate of just 30%.

In the first three months of the year, escalators identified as ES258X were out of service more than 98% of the time – the machine’s worst quarter on record (since 2015), according to MTA figures – while the second escalator was down almost 80% of the time.

“I throw the walker over my shoulder and hope they finally fix these escalators,” said Maria Ramos, 54, after helping guide an elderly man to the station. “I don’t want to fall down the stairs.”

The MTA said the escalators were having their handrails and step chains replaced, and that Zeckendorf Towers was also responsible for keeping its station entrance clean as part of the 1980s zoning bonus.

A sign at the entrance states that the escalators “are the property of Zeckendorf Towers” and that concerns should be directed to the property manager’s office. Maxwell-Kates Inc., which manages the building, did not respond to requests for comment.

“The MTA has been actively communicating with the owner to ensure he is following his contract with the MTA and city regulations regarding maintenance and safety,” spokeswoman Joana Flores told THE CITY.

A Department of Buildings spokesperson said the Zeckendorf escalators should be back in service by Friday. It comes after the building’s management was twice fined in February for non-maintenance. Violations carry a maximum penalty of $12,500.

Andrew Rudansky, the DOB spokesman, told THE CITY the owners also face a $6,250 fine for an escalator violation that was issued on January 19 of this year.

Four escalation offenses were also issued on January 5, 2021, June 16, 2020 and March 15, 2019, for fines totaling $4,375, he said, adding that those penalties had been paid.

“If owners fail to restore escalators to good working order and properly maintain the devices, they will be subject to additional enforcement action,” Rudansky said.

Private escalators are generally better

MTA figures show that the 10 subway escalators with the best 24-hour availability rates (100%) between last April and last month are all maintained by individuals. This includes moving stairs at Fulton Center, Lexington Avenue/51st Street and 42nd Street-Grand Central.

In contrast, the 14th Street-Union Square escalators were the only those maintained by individuals among the 10 least reliable in the entire system.

“It’s always something – you have bums pissing here and old people taking the stairs instead of the escalator,” said Shawana Moore, 41, a bricklayer who commutes to the station daily. “It’s a shame.”

Commuters have complained about unsanitary conditions at the private Union Square station. April 12, 2022.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Jeff Peters of the Center for Independence of the Disabled New York said the organization regularly receives complaints about private subway entrances that are closed, inaccessible or dirty.

“The private entities responsible for maintaining subway entrances need to keep their promise to maintain them,” said Peters, whose office is just south of Union Square. “We can’t wait for the station or the equipment to fall into disrepair and for them to be forced or shamed into action.”

Jessica Murray, who is part of the Elevator Action Group of the nonprofit activist collective Rise and Resist, said the city and MTA need to strengthen contracts with private developers who receive incentives in exchange for maintaining the escalators and subway elevators.

“It looks like the city needs to step in and try to get that value back if [building owners] don’t really live up to their end of the bargain,” she said. “Something must give.”