'I Can't Let Them Take It Down.' Can One Man Save the Rector St. Bridge?

Robert Schneck on the Battery Park City side of the Rector Street Bridge. He hopes to enlist others in his campaign to save the bridge. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Aug. 04, 2019

Robert Schneck is waging a one-man campaign to save a bridge and, he believes, even some lives.

For the last few years, the 71-year-old Battery Park City resident and Community Board 1 member has argued for preserving the Rector Street Pedestrian Bridge, which spans West Street. Intended as a temporary structure when it was built in 2002, it is slated for demolition when the new West Thames Street Bridge, less than two blocks away, opens this fall. 

With little time left, Schneck hopes to convince the city that the bridge’s $4.5 million demolition is wasteful and, worse, could have dangerous consequences. Once it is gone, he believes, many of the bridge’s former users will choose to cross the busy highway at nearby Albany Street rather than walk to the new bridge. 

“I can’t let them take it down because it doesn’t make any sense,” Schneck said simply.

During his visits to the bridge these days, Schneck collects data and signatures to help make his case. He also notes the reactions of bridge users to news of the span’s impending demise.

“Whatever I get is information that nobody has,” said Schneck, a former corporate communications director and now president of Volks House, a builder of passive homes. “So anything that represents people who are unrepresented is significant.” 

On a recent mid-afternoon, Schneck stood on the Battery Park City side of the bridge, a counter in one hand and a clipboard of petitions resting on a chair nearby. “If you want to keep crossing this bridge,” his sign above the petition reads, “you’ll have to help save it!”

Approaching his subjects, Schneck first asks how often they use the bridge. And then, “Do you know it’s going to get torn down? Does it matter to you? Would you like to keep it here? I’m trying to save it.”

Typically, those willing to stop—and there were many this day—voiced surprise, puzzlement and sometimes outrage that the bridge is coming down.

“I love my bridge,” said one pedestrian he interviewed. “It’s idiotic,” said another. ”I like this one. It’s convenient. It’s right here,” said still another. Several noted that the bridge crossing offered a more direct route to the Financial District and the subway than the West Thames Street Bridge.

According to Schneck's survey, 98.6 percent of people using the Rector Street Bridge said they thought crossing at Albany Street was dangerous, yet nearly 83 percent said they would cross at grade rather than take the West Thames Street Bridge.

Community Board 1 is on record as wanting to keep the Rector Street Bridge only until the West Thames Street Bridge opens, and supports taking it down in order to accomodate the expansion of Battery Park City’s Liberty Community Gardens.

“If you ask people if they want to have this bridge or not I would think that most people would be affirmative on that,” CB1 Chair Anthony Notaro said in a telephone interview. “But we have to look at the whole issue.”

Notaro cited as a “major problem” the frequently broken lift on the east side that makes the bridge non-handicap accessible. And he dismissed the idea that the eight-lane Albany Street crossing is dangerous. “People cross it all the time,” he said. Along with freeing additional space for the community gardens on the west side, Notaro noted, the absence of the bridge on the east side would allow for the widening of the narrow sidewalk in front of Metropolitan College of New York, which has complained about the limited space for pedestrians.

Notaro said the bridge has lasted this long because much money has gone into maintaining it. “It was built as a temporary thing,” he said. “So I have no idea if it will last another five or 10 years without millions of dollars of maintenance.”

The Rector Street Bridge went up in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, a temporary substitute for the badly damaged Liberty Street Bridge and destroyed bridge that connected the Winter Garden to the World Trade Center. Scuttled plans, interagency squabbles and ballooning costs plagued the construction of the West Thames Street Bridge for years, leaving the Rector Street Bridge in place far longer than expected.

A Batter Park City Authority spokesman declined to comment on Schneck’s campaign, but said in a statement, “As always, we welcome the productive, ongoing dialogue with our local community and City and State partners on ways to further enhance the priority of pedestrian safety across our neighborhood.

The $45 million West Thames Street Bridge required the approval of the city’s Public Design Commission, which city officials say was contingent on taking down the Rector Street Bridge. “It was always a temporary bridge and it was always intended as part of the original Route 9A construction plan that the bridge would be removed and the adjacent areas restored,” Odit Oliner, a project manager for the city’s Economic Development Corp, said at a CB1 meeting last September.

But Schneck says decisions made so long ago no longer apply. Since then, he points out, many more people pour into the area with the opening of the World Trade Center towers, 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the Oculus, Goldman Sachs headquarters and other developments. As for the frequently non-working elevator, which is maintained by the Battery Park City Authority, “I’m going to call them up every day and say it’s not running,” he said. “People expect it to run. This thing is ADA compliant so we have to have this running for people.” (The lift began running once again last Friday.) 

Schneck said he hopes to enlist volunteers to help with his effort, and gain the support of condominium boards, school principals, the Battery Park City Seniors group and others, not to mention elected officials. 

City Councilwoman Margaret Chin “fully supports the efforts to save the Rector Street Bridge” and will be saying so in a letter, her spokesman, Rush Perez, said in an email. Other elected representatives have yet to sign on.

In the meantime, Schneck has been waging a bigger battle. Diagnosed in 2002 with multiple myeloma, his campaign efforts are periodically put on hold by relapses, treatments and surgeries that included a near fatal episode last December. “I’m lucky to be alive, “ he said, “so I’m thankful I can even do this.” 

After an hour and a half at his post, Schneck was ready to call it a day. By now he had clicked his counter 311 times.

“The point is that all these people benefit from the bridge, and nobody seems to think they exist,” he said, as yet another bridge crosser ascended the stairs. “But they’re not non-existent, because at least I’m counting them.”

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There is an online petition

FYI, there’s also an online petition to save the Rector St bridge that was started a while back. I saw they have paper petitions in my building, but the online one is helpful too. — SEAN SCOTT