Clash over 'bikes in buildings' law frustrates Gridlock Sam's firm
The NoHo engineering firm run by traffic guru Sam Schwartz is snarled in a bike battle with its building owner, testing the limits of a city law that gives bicyclists the right to bring their wheels into the workplace.
Since the legislation took effect in late 2009, workers said the building’s owner has unfairly retaliated against them and snubbed the law, instead paying more than $8,000 in fines, amNewYork has learned.
That has put Schwartz, better known as traffic columnist Gridlock Sam, and his fellow engineers in a stalemate with the owner of 611 Broadway, M.D. Carlisle Realty Corp.
“I don’t understand the defiance,” said Rob Phillips, chief operating officer of Sam Schwartz Engineering and an avid bicyclist.
“Being against [the law] is one thing, but not abiding by it is another,” he added, speaking on behalf of Schwartz.
The firm’s frustration can be felt elsewhere in the city. Although the majority of the 816 tenants who’ve requested bike access through the law have had compliant building owners, there are still extreme cases where landlords fight tooth and nail against it.
“It seems like it’s too easy for them to get an exemption,” complained architect Clare Miflin, whose Brooklyn Heights firm wrangled with its landlord over bike access and ultimately lost.
The law permits companies that want to allow employees to bring their bikes to the office the right to petition their buildings’ owners.
But there are a few catches: The building must have a freight elevator, and it’s up to the petitioners to locate space within their offices to store bikes.
A building owner can ask the city for an exception from the law if it has no freight elevators or can prove there are safety risks involved with permitting bikes onto them; or if it can provide an alternate site for bikes without creating an official “bicycle access plan.”
But in a letter sent to Sam Schwartz Engineering in 2008, before the law passed, M.D. Carlisle President Evan Stein said he would not support the proposal because of potential damage to the building that bikes may cause and “negative impacts on our insurance rates.” Neither is a valid reason under the law.
M.D. Carlisle did not return calls seeking comment.
Events turned ugly this summer, when the realty group did not renew Schwartz’s lease for one of the two office spaces that the firm occupied inside the building. The lease for the other office space is up in two years, and the firm doesn’t expect it to be renewed either.
The city Department of Transportation said the building owner has previously tried to win an exemption, but was denied. It’s now applying for it again.
The department does send out inspectors to determine whether a building owner is violating the law. If so, an initial fine of $800 can be issued to the owner.
Employees at Sam Schwartz Engineering said that while the landmark law has helped bicyclists – the city received more than 500 tenant requests for bike access in its first year – the fact that a building owner can continue flouting the law exposes a lack of serious teeth.
“We’re completely flabbergasted that it passed, we now have the law on our side and we still don’t have compliance,” said Sabrina Lau, who bikes from Fort Greene and advocated for the law.
Douglas Adams, who commutes from Brooklyn Heights, said he’s had parts of his bike stolen over the years when he’s locked it outside the office.
To know that the building owner would rather pay multiple fines than permit for bikes is “incredibly frustrating,” he said, adding, “We clearly have the law on our side.”