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Roosevelt Island’s FDR Park Moves Towards Wheelchair Accessibility

The city and state were planning instal a lift at Roosevelt Island’s Four Freedoms Park after being sued over accessibility issues.
A long-delayed lift at Roosevelt Island’s Four Freedoms Park is expected to arrive in about a year.
An.dre/THE CITY

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, a tree-lined four-acre expanse on the southern end of Roosevelt Island with panoramic views of Manhattan and Queens, is dedicated to the only U.S. president to use a wheelchair while in office.

But wheelchairs cannot be used to climb the flight of 22 stone steps at the park’s entrance.

“There’s no equality here,” said Edith Prentiss, a wheelchair user who lives in Washington Heights. “You’re kept at a distance, you’re just not part of it.”

Now, as the country marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a city and state funding agreement is in place to make the monument to the 32nd U.S. president accessible by next summer.

The stairs have long limited people with mobility issues from enjoying the memorial, which opened in 2012. So advocates — Prentiss among them — filed a class action lawsuit in 2017 against the park’s conservancy and the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

A settlement reached a year later included plans to install a platform lift for people who can’t use stairs, and promises to repair uneven stone paths that posed obstacles for anyone using a walker, rollator or wheelchair.

That agreement set a deadline of May 2018 for the fixes to be made, yet the lift is still not installed.

Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island.
Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island
Christine Chung/THE CITY

The city and state are moving toward commencing the project with $250,000 in city funds secured in the 2020 budget by Councilmember Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) now being transferred to the state parks officials.

Leslie Wright, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said officials expect to begin seeking bids for the work in the early fall with an eye on a summer 2021 project completion date.

Rebecca Serbin, an attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, the nonprofit that filed the 2017 suit, said the lift’s installation was snagged “for reasons beyond the parties’ control.”

“We are pleased that the park has made significant accessibility improvements under the terms of our settlement agreement, including improvements to the park’s paths, dining area and other features,” Serbin said. “While disappointing, we have assurances that it [the lift] is on track to be installed by mid-2021.”

‘Very Insulting’

Plans for the park were first announced nearly 50 years ago, when the strip of land in the East River was renamed from Welfare Island to Roosevelt Island, to honor FDR, who was from New York State.

But construction did not begin until 2010, decades after the 1974 death of Louis Kahn, the celebrated architect who designed Four Freedoms Park.

The site commemorates a speech Roosevelt delivered at his eighth State of the Union Address, in 1941, when he spoke of working to create a world where all people enjoyed four fundamental freedoms: freedom of speech; freedom of religion, freedom from want; and freedom from fear.

Joseph Rappaport, the executive director of Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, one of the plaintiffs in the 2017 lawsuit, said that the design “just wasn’t made with everyone in mind and really ran directly counter to the ideals that FDR put forward in his Four Freedoms speech.”

The 1970s-era design predated the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on disability.

Levine called Kahn’s design for the park “a masterpiece,” but with a flaw that “must be remedied.”

“I am thrilled that funds from the City Council will enable Four Freedoms to install a new wheelchair lift — so that every New Yorker can experience that magical ascent to the park’s iconic stairs,” he added.

“In a year in which we are marking the 30th anniversary of the passage of the ADA, this upgrade has extra meaning.”

Prentiss said she harbored few hopes for a timely resolution.

“It’s the sort of thing you look at it, you like it, you sit around and go, ‘It’s really sort of interesting and very insulting,’” said Prentiss. “It’s insulting because it’s not meeting the standard.”

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