FDR Four Freedoms Battles New York On Accessibility

David Stone

Weeks after welcoming its 500,000 visitor, FDR Four Freedoms Park is in a battle with the city over, of all things, accessibility.

New York City says the park's design discriminates against people with mobility limitations, according to current law. The standoff is as poignant as it is puzzling for two reasons.

First, the park is a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a world leader paralyzed from the waist down for the last 21 years of his life, including his entire presidency. With a stigma then attached to disability, Roosevelt along with his family and friends worked hard to hide his dependence on a wheelchair and to portray him as powerful and physically energetic.

The second reason is less obvious but not less important. Roosevelt Island, on which Four Freedoms Park occupies a sizable chunk of prime land, was developed as a community pioneering in barrier free design. Although residents who depend on wheels to get around say our community is still the easiest in New York, that shining attribute is dimming in ways both large and small. To find a world class, highly visible, but new member of the community defending restricted access is disheartening, at best.

Full disclosure. My father was afflicted by polio, just as Roosevelt was, not as severely, but he too was forced to deal, after age 13, with a landscape where barrier free design was scarcely known, long before the ADA banned discrimination based on disability. Not as dramatically, but meaningfully, my own view of the world is never the same as the majority of my neighbors.

And Historic Clash

According to an article in the New York Times, Four Freedoms Park has been operating under a temporary occupancy permit as it battles the city's insistence that its design is not accessible. New York has demanded that it be fixed through two administrations.

“There is a particularly tragic irony in a park commemorating the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt — one of this country’s great historical figures with a disability, and a role model to so many — that is not completely accessible to those with disabilities,” the article quotes Natalie Grybauskas, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

At the core of the dispute is a 60 foot wide open air enclosure known as The Room. The Room is a plaza filling the final section of the park - and island - where tall slabs of granite usher visitors past a bust of Roosevelt and into a down river vista of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. At the base is a sunken terrace, 12 feet deep, that can be reached only by climbing down four deep stairs.

Dependent on wheels for mobility, President Roosevelt could not have experienced the final, expansive views of The Room. Neither could my father.

Wait a minute, counters the park's administrators. The park was designed by Louis Kahn long before the anti-discrimination law passed and well before accessibility became a recognized public issue. Changing the design to fit the city's demands would have required installing ramps and railings.

“The consequences of doing it — for everyone’s experience — seemed to outweigh the value," Sally Minard, president of the conservancy that runs the park, is quoted in the Times. 

Minard's comment carries weight because Kahn was a highly respected architect, his designs works of art that should not be altered unless necessary.

And the conservancy's position is not without support from people most qualified to weigh in. 

“The upper level is ideal,” the Times quotes Jim Bates, the head of Roosevelt Island's Disabled Association and a popular local advocate. “You can see everything.”

Furthermore, the sunken terrace is not intended to be a destination itself claims James Stewart Polshek, a member of the conservancy's board.

Polshek's argument falls short of explaining why granite steps are in place on both sides of The Room or why, more pointedly, virtually every visitor to this area of the park, those who can anyway, steps down to appreciate the unobstructed view.

Install Ramps and Railings

Taking nothing away from FDR Four Freedoms Park's respect for its namesake, their arguments in favor of continuing restricted access fails the test of present day sensibilities. No one ought to be restricted in their appreciation of publicly funded spaces, especially not one honoring our distinguished president who, if he were alive today, would not have full access to the park, especially not on Roosevelt Island with our history of welcoming everyone without unnecessary restrictions.

Little imagination is required in agreeing with the de Blasio administration's point. The design as it now exists restricts not just people who rely on wheels for mobility, but others like my father for whom the absence of rails are a barrier in themselves and - let's be honest - an embarrassment for the community.

With 60 feet to work with, the park can easily accommodate a pair of ramps that let anyone walk or roll into the sunken terrace, holding onto a rail for guidance. And the money is there. The city is already withholding between $600,000 and $900,000 in financing because of the dispute.

As for Kahn's design, it was created before people with restricted mobility were protected from discrimination. That was bad judgment in and of itself, and it needs to be addressed. It would mark a sorry state for modern architecture if no one is able to produce a design that satisfies everyone in 2016, doing it in ways barely on the horizon in the 1970s.

It's time for the conservancy to stop defending the indefensible and work with the city to find a solution.




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