Tough slog to a fast ferry

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The new riverboats are already a magnet for East Siders — but a trek to the dock means navigating 70-plus steps, so it’s impassable for the disabled


  • Ferry passengers clamber up the pitched slope at the northern end of Carl Schurz Park to get to and from the East 90th Street ferry landing on the East River, where a new riverboat route launched on Aug. 15. It’s a pretty tough haul, and it is not ADA accessible. Photo: Douglas Feiden

  • Ferry riders pick their way down steep terrain just north of Gracie Mansion as they descend to and from the East River ferry landing at East 90th Street. The route is not ADA accessible, and it requires navigating 35-plus steps going uphill and another 35-plus heading downhill.  Photo: Douglas Feiden

  • Ferry riders pick their way down steep terrain just north of Gracie Mansion as they descend to and from the East River ferry landing at East 90th Street. The route is not ADA accessible, and it requires navigating 35-plus steps going uphill and another 35-plus heading downhill. Photo: Douglas Feiden

“It is outrageous that there is still no accessible path to the 90th Street ferry.”

State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright

Question: Now that ferry service has returned to the Upper East Side, how does a river-bound passenger reach the East 90th Street landing to board the boat and travel to points south?

Answer: It’s easy if you’re young, healthy or fit. It can be tricky, even treacherous, if you’re old, infirm or frail. And unfortunately, it is all-but impossible if you’re confined to a wheelchair.

With great fanfare, the city on Aug. 15 launched a massive expansion of its existing ferry system, opening a berth just north of Carl Schurz Park to whisk riders down to 34th Street and Pier 11 on Wall Street.

The only problem is getting to the ferry dock. To access the site, commuters have to navigate dozens of steps on the uptown side of Gracie Mansion and scale a steep slope that summits on the roof of the FDR Drive tunnel.

That pitched hill — beloved by generations of sleigh-riders — is crowned by a plateau atop the highway which ferry-goers traverse by wending their way between two construction fences before finally descending to the East River on the other side.

“The ride itself is gorgeous — but I could do without all the huffing-and-puffing it takes to get there,” said Phyllis Lester, a 79-year-old retired Yorkville bookkeeper who took the ferry to visit a doctor on 36th Street.

“For me, it’s no problem,” said William Shapiro, 31, a broker on a Wall Street commodities desk. Indeed, he wore a backpack and effortlessly carried a bicycle up the steps. “But I have a grandmother who’s 84 and loves the water, and it’s just not fair to deny her access,” he said.

Needless to say, the passage is not ADA accessible: Our Town counted 11 separate sets of stairs, totaling 35-plus steps, leading from East End Avenue at 90th Street to the crest of the hill — then another nine sets of stairs, or 37 steps more, back down to reach the landing at sea-level.

During a two-hour period in the evening rush hour last week, at least three dozen baby carriages and bicycles, plus scores of strollers and skateboards, were hauled on the narrow path over precipitous terrain.

“It is outrageous that there is still no accessible path to the 90th Street ferry,” said state Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, whose district covers the East Side and Roosevelt Island.

“This is not only an urgent need but a basic requirement,” she added.

It is actually possible, though not very practical, to get a wheelchair to the mooring. Assuming 90th Street is the starting point, it’s a 0.75-mile route.

A person would have to be wheeled up York or First Avenues to the heavily trafficked intersection at 96th Street; cross under the FDR Drive; continue six blocks south along the Esplanade; thread past the Marine Transfer Station at 91st Street, where the city’s Dept. of Sanitation is rebuilding the walkway; and finally, arrive at the point of embarkation, which itself is accessible.

On the day the new ferry line debuted last week, Seawright boarded the boat, and as she joined James Patchett, president of the Economic Development Corp., the lead city agency overseeing ferry operations, she said she stressed the critical importance of access for the disabled.

“We will continue to press for a fully accessible path until this matter is rectified,” she said later.


EDC says it is endeavoring to do exactly that. Its task was complicated by the collapse of a chunk of seawall on the East River Esplanade near 89th Street in Carl Schurz Park in May 2017, which necessitated the ongoing reconstruction of the area’s promenades.

As the city’s Dept. of Parks presses forward with that project, EDC built what it terms a “temporary access” footpath in order to open up the waterfront, where it estimates 400,000-plus ferry passengers a year will either board, disembark or transit to points north and south.

Once seawall repairs are wrapped up, the short-term route will close and full access via an easier approach through the park, probably at 87th or 88th Street, will be provided, officials familiar with the project said.

Permanent ADA upgrades planned for the park will also bolster access to the jetty.

“We understand the difficulty the temporary path poses for seniors and disabled individuals,” an EDC spokesperson said. “We are working closely with NYC Parks and Sanitation to remedy the situation as soon as possible and open an ADA-accessible pathway to the East 90th Street ferry landing.”

Both the Parks Dept. and a spokesperson for Hornblower, the private company that operates NYC Ferry under contract with the city, referred questions to EDC.

Access to the 90th Street landing for the disabled isn’t going to happen overnight.

Community Board 8 and local elected officials have been told the permanent route will be completed by the end of this year or the beginning of 2019, depending on the severity of the winter, which could make it tough to seed and sod the area. That means the pitched passage could remain in place for four to six months.

“While we’re very excited about the opening of the ferry, nobody’s thrilled with 96th Street being the only accessible entrance,” said Tricia Shimamura, co-chair of CB8’s Parks Committee.

“Right now, it certainly doesn’t provide equal access, and it’s absolutely unfair that it is not accessible,” she added.

But Shimamura credited the city agencies with keeping the lines of communication open, briefing the board throughout the process and providing appropriate signage to the temporary path when requested. She noted that no trees were taken down when the path was built, and that before long, it will be returned to its historic communal use:

“We’ll eventually get the sled hill back,” she said. “It is so beloved by our community ... We’re hoping it gets done sooner rather than later as the park area becomes more accessible.”

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