out of step

City Brings Criminal Court Case Over Busted Subway Escalator

A privately maintained escalator at 53rd Street-Lexington Avenue has been out of service for more than a year
A privately maintained escalator at 53rd Street-Lexington Avenue has been out of service for more than a year Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Safety inspectors are so fed up with a Manhattan subway escalator that’s been busted since last January that the building’s manager and owner have been hauled into criminal court, records show.

THE CITY reported last week that the escalator leading to the E and M train platform at the Lexington Avenue-53rd Street station, under the famed Lipstick Building, had the system’s worst performance record, operating less than 5% of the time in 2019.

In October, the city Law Department issued criminal court summonses to 885 3rd Avenue Realty Owner LLC and John Perdios, a senior manager for the real estate giant CBRE.

“The owners of 885 Third Avenue entered into an agreement with the city to properly maintain this escalator at the Lexington Avenue-53rd Street station,” said Andrew Rudansky, a Department of Buildings spokesperson. “We have taken these owners to criminal court to enforce that agreement.”

The DOB, which handles safety enforcement for escalators in private structures, received complaints from the MTA. In November, Perdios and 885 3rd Avenue Realty Owner LLC were arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court on a misdemeanor charge related to violation of the building code, court records show.

Buildings Department records show the owners of 885 Third Ave. were hit last year with three violations and $13,750 in fines because of the “hazardous condition” created by the useless subway escalator. The owners have yet to pay $7,500 of the penalty, according to city records.

Towering Concerns

The address 885 Third Ave. is more famously known as the Lipstick Building, which rises like a cylindrical make-up tube across from Citigroup Center and once housed Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff’s offices.

The tower has a notoriously complex ownership structure, with one entity owning the land and another, an Argentinian investment trust, controlling the structure via a long-term lease.

That trust, IRSA, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the owner of the land, Ceruzzi Properties, previously asserted to THE CITY that the leaseholder is responsible for the escalator.

Perdios and CBRE did not respond to calls and emails requesting interviews.

The Lipstick Building in Midtown
The Lipstick Building in Midtown Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The obligation to keep the privately maintained escalator in working order dates back to a 1980s pact between the MTA and previous owners, when the iconic Lipstick Building was first constructed. The City Planning Commission granted permission to expand the building’s floor space in exchange for supplying the escalator and keeping it in working order.

Rider advocates fumed about the still-stalled stairs.

“I’m sure the Lipstick Building’s own escalators weren’t broken all last year,” said Colin Wright of TransitCenter.

Patchwork Approach

The problems with the escalator, in use since 1985, date back more than a decade. According to a 2011 report by the office of the MTA Inspector General, the escalator began sputtering in 2008, when it had already outlasted its projected 20-year lifespan.

In 2011, transit officials called for a full replacement of the escalator, according to a March 13, 2019, letter from the MTA to the owner and Perdios.

Instead of paying $1.5 million for a new escalator, the company that maintains the machine opted for $800,000 patchwork fixes, according to the 2011 report by the MTA Inspector General. The report noted the escalator went out of commission for more than three years at one point.

Its latest extended outage began last year on Jan. 20.

“All of this is especially troubling because it could have been avoided had you not ignored our advice in 2011 when the escalator was continually breaking down,” wrote Robert Paley, the MTA’s director of transit-oriented development.

Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Now the nearly 65,000 riders at what was the 10th busiest subway station in 2018 are left to wait even longer. At a Jan. 28 court hearing, a lawyer for the defendants said the parts for the latest repair project are set to be delivered next month and that the work won’t be completed until August.

The MTA projects the escalator will remain out of service until at least Sept. 30.

“That’s just sad, man,” said Ralph Yowy, 60, who commutes through the station daily. “It affects a lot of people, especially when the other escalators aren’t working, so it’s about time they fix this thing.”

There are 42 privately owned escalators throughout the subway system, along with 232 that are maintained by New York City Transit. In exchange for receiving special development privileges, the owners of privately owned escalators must meet New York City Transit’s operating and maintenance standards.

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