BY Rob Wolfe
New York City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) has canceled a Citi Bike station planned on 55th Street near 5th Avenue. Nicholas Mosquera, a press representative for DOT, said in an email that the station had been canceled for “technical reasons, including a planned long-term construction project nearby on the block,” but credit may instead go to a representative of the five-star St. Regis Hotel, built in 1904 by John Jacob Astor IV.
“I may have asked for it to be reconsidered,” Harry Falik, security director at the St. Regis, said over the phone. Later, in person, Falik changed course. “It didn’t happen,” he said, twice. When asked if he had misspoken, Falik let out a breath. “Yes – thank you.”
DOT and Citi Bike would not comment on the time frame and the exact nature of the construction project, nor on whether the St. Regis was involved in the decision. “We were informed that the construction project I mentioned would affect a significant portion of the block,” Mosquera said.
Citi Bike, New York City’s privately funded bike share system, owes its name to Citibank, its largest sponsor. Since the program’s debut in May 2013, over 83,000 annual subscribers have paid $95 plus tax for annual access to Citi Bike’s 330 stations in Manhattan and select areas of Brooklyn.
Falik, who like the staff he oversees favors a black suit, loud, solid-color tie, earpiece, and a close-cropped haircut, said the rack was moved to 56th and Madison, where the use pattern plays out as it does at many other Midtown racks, according to an interactive map of the system: full to bursting in the morning as workers pedal in from residential areas; picked clean by the evening as the same people ride back home. But in fact, according to Mosquera, the 56th and Madison station was “pre-planned,” not a relocation.
At 9:00 a.m. on a weekday, the 56th Street rack is already full, save one broken docking station. Citi Bikers pedal by against the punishing fall winds, ram their rides hopefully into the open dock, and shake their heads as they ride away to try again at the next rack. An older man wearing a wool hat, gloves, and a thermal vest over a sweatshirt locks his own bicycle to a nearby signpost. After 15 years as a bike messenger, John Gilliard has a pragmatic view of Citi Bike. “[The stations] are conveniently located, so to me it works out.” He thinks that the station is better on 56th Street, which is wider than 55th; the rack is placed in a commercial area, so it doesn’t block parking spots or traffic.
Back on East 55th Street, it is impossible to open a door by oneself. Whether it’s Breguet, a luxury watch retailer; Escada, favorite designer of the crown princess of Sweden; or multinational diamond conglomerate De Beers, there’s a doorman out front in a sharp suit and a smile. They can be less welcoming when it comes to bike racks. A salesman for De Beers first said he couldn’t comment for attribution, but then contributed one word to describe the project. “Lovely,” he said, with a grimace. Press representatives for the businesses did not respond to requests for comment.
Guests at the St. Regis tend not to dress for cycling. Saud Al-Sayari, a Saudi tourist, prefers to walk or take cabs. He smokes as he watches a parade of burly Arab security guards weave between identical black Lincolns and honking cabs on 55th Street: the Kuwaiti prime minister is in town. When asked about his opinion of the man, he hesitates; it’s a touchy subject. He finishes his cigarette, drops it on the ground, and not a minute later a concierge steps up to sweep it into a dustpan.
DOT and Citi Bike have no official appeal process regarding the location of bike racks, other than complaining to 311. Steven Sladkus, a Manhattan lawyer known for his representation of co-op and condominium boards, said that on multiple occasions the city agreed to relocate racks when he moved to file suit. “Sometimes it takes threats of litigation, and other times it takes common sense – stabbing them in the head with common sense,” he said in a phone interview. “I’ve geared up for litigations and I haven’t filed because, fortunately, the DOT was willing to see the way I wanted them to see.”
Sladkus says DOT is often stubborn when its decision making is questioned. “Sometimes they dig their heels in…just for the sake of digging in their heels.” Sladkus’s hourly fee is $430. New Yorkers who can’t afford it or can’t get DOT’s attention, like Frank’s Bike Shop on the Lower East Side and street vendors around Zucotti Park, will have to get used to their new neighbor.