Residents, Reps: Kibosh for Kiosks is the Fix for Broken ‘Link’

Chelsea residents have identified four of these kiosks—including the one located in front of Foragers—as attracting users engaged in quality of life issues like panhandling and drug dealing. | Photo by a CCN reader wishing to remain anonymous

 

BY WINNIE McCROY | Citing longstanding security concerns around public LinkNYC Wi-Fi and charging stations, area leaders have requested the removal and relocation of four of these kiosks along Eighth Ave.

The move has the support of Manhattan Community Board 4 (CB4), Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, West Chelsea’s 10th Precinct of the NYPD, and the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) of Chelsea’s PS11. But first, they’ll need to resolve some red tape with the kiosk vendor.

“The LinkNYC kiosks on Eighth Avenue have been a subject of ongoing community concern regarding security and public nuisance since before the pandemic,” Brewer told CCN. “I hope that [Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Commissioner Jessica] Tisch will work with Community Board 4 and my office to relocate the LinkNYC kiosks to the sites we proposed. In the meantime, charging and non-emergency phone functions should be disabled from these kiosks.”

Installed in 2016 in a move that Mayor Bill De Blasio celebrated as a “critical step toward a more equal, open and connected city” that would create the “world’s largest, fastest free municipal Wi-Fi network,” the kiosks are equipped with charging stations, 911 buttons, and phones for free domestic calls. Each kiosk comes with three cameras, 30 sensors, and elevated sight lines.

In addition to sparking fears that the LinkNYC kiosks could be storing sensitive data and tracking user’s movements, the kiosks have also become plagued by panhandling, drug dealing, and other public nuisance crimes. In Chelsea, four of these LinkNYC kiosks—those located in front of Foragers, Gristedes, Joe’s Pizza and Adam’s Market Place—were identified early on as being problematic, with community members testifying before CB4 how these locations were becoming a hub for panhandlers and drug dealers.

Pamela Wolff, co-president of Save Chelsea and a public member of CB4, has been involved in the effort to get rid of the four LinkNYC towers on the two-block stretch from W. 20th to 22nd Sts.

Said Wolff, “Their presence, combined with the advertising (news) boxes and the sidewalk sheds, has created a perfect storm from hell for the residents and businesses on the west side of Eighth Avenue, including the delis at 20th and 21st Streets, the nail shop, Gristedes, and Foragers. We have also been working at getting rid of the sheds. The owners at 207 Eighth Avenue have only recently applied for permits to do the façade work needed at that building in order to remove the shed.”

At a Nov. 6, 2019 full board meeting of CB4, the board passed a resolution supporting the removal of four of these structures located on Eighth Ave. between W. 20th and 22nd Sts.: 211 Eighth Ave., 225 Eighth Ave., 197 Eighth Ave., and 213 Eighth Ave. In some of these cases, safety issues were compounded when the kiosk was surrounded by construction sheds, news boxes, and other street furniture.

“These kiosks are right around the corner from PS11, and if the kids go back to school this fall, they are going to be subjected to these same quality of life issues,” said Lowell Kern, the current Chair of CB4. “We have asked our elected officials multiple times to please work to have these removed, and we urge that action be taken as quickly as possible, because this is a problem for the neighborhood.”

CB4 proposed four alternative sites for these LinkNYC kiosks, to be located on the west side of 10th Ave., relocated from the middle of the block to 25 ft. from the corner at the following locations: 10th Ave. between W. 14th and 15th Sts., 10th Ave. between W. 16th and 17th Sts., 10th Ave. between W. 20th and 21st Sts., and 10th Ave. between W. 22nd and 23rd Sts.

Jus one jaded New Yorker in the pre-launch focus group would have seen it coming: LinkNYC promised free Wi-Fi and phone charging, but its community relations problem started when early adopters co-opted the kiosks to watch pornography. | Photo by Scott Stiffler

Kiosks Impact Quality of Life | In a July 13, 2020 letter to Jessica Tisch, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), Borough President Brewer shared local residents’ concerns for how these specific structures had “contributed to a precipitous decline in neighborhood quality of life.”

Some of these complaints were shared by Phyllis Waisman, a member of the 300 West 23rd, 22nd, 21st Streets Block Association. Waisman told Brewer that the “towers have become a security concern for the neighborhood as they facilitate illegal activities, including drug dealing, loitering, aggressive panhandling and intimidation,” noting that she had “witnessed an intoxicated individual loudly proclaiming sexual harassments to a young woman walking in front of me.”

Waisman also referenced the impact of these behaviors on local school children from PS11, who regularly walk those streets to their school on W. 21st St. between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

To wit, the PTA of PS11 also expressed these concerns to Brewer, calling the situation “a real safety issue.” In an October 29, 2019 letter to Brewer, PTA Co-Presidents Santhi Yarlagadda and Jacqueline Paolone noted that the kiosks had become “a gathering point for groups of people who are pulling up furniture, using profane language, fighting and causing general angst in the community.”

While the PTA was not requesting the removal of all of the kiosks on Eighth Ave., the co-presidents noted that at the four kiosks between W. 20th and 22nd Sts., these minor quality of life issues had become part of a “larger safety issue” happening in that corridor, which had already attracted the attention of NYPD’s 10th Precinct’s Commanding Officer, Deputy Inspector Kevin J. Coleman, and his team.

After numerous and repeated concerns voiced from CB4, the PTA, the NYPD, and local residents over the past six months, Brewer finally penned her letter to Commissioner Tisch this month, requesting removal of these four kiosks.

While Brewer contended that the “LinkNYC program remains a unique city-wide asset,” she also supported the relocation of these four kiosks to CB4’s recommended alternative sites.

“I also request, should removal and relocation of the LINKs not be feasible immediately, that charging and the phone functions (except 911 calls), be disconnected,” added Brewer in that July 13 letter.

Electeds Support Move | The move has long had the supported of elected officials. As far back as August 17, 2016, then–City Councilmember (currently Council Speaker) Corey Johnson wrote a letter to former Commissioner Anne M. Roest of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, and Jen Hensley, General Manager of LinkNYC, to express his “serious concerns” about the flood of complaints his office had received regarding several of these kiosks.

Wrote Johnson in that letter, “these kiosks are often monopolized by individuals creating personal spaces for themselves, engaging in activities that include playing loud explicit music, consuming drugs and alcohol, and the viewing of pornography… in view of nearby children.”

But the relocation of these kiosks seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. According to a March 3 report by Politico, CityBridge, the consortium behind LinkNYC, owes the city tens of millions of dollars. They stopped installing kiosks in 2018, leaving the city with just 1,800 LinkNYC kiosks—far short of the 4,500 that were supposed to be installed by mid–2019. The way DoITT sees it, their hands are tied until they resolve this situation with CityBridge.

“We understand Community Board 4’s concerns but can only review installation and removal requests once kiosk operator CityBridge restarts this important work, which has stalled for more than a year. We are working with CityBridge to address this issue and the more than $60 million it owes the City,” said a spokesperson for the DoITT.

Even with community pressure and the help of elected officials, Chelsea residents may have to settle for simply the dismantling of charging and non-emergency phone functions (except 911) at these problematic kiosks.

“This after years of pressure from every direction, including Community Board 4, the block associations, our elected officials, and the 10th precinct,” said Save Chelsea’s Wolff. “I’m hopeful, but not holding my breath.”

 

 

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