Riverhead Towers residents say a city decision to remove chairs from its lobby is about petty politics, not safety.
Tenants at the Hamilton Avenue apartment complex have enlisted Ward 2 Coun. Jonathan Galgay in their fight, which started about a month ago after storm-related blackouts in January.
Until then, said a resident who asked her name not be used, there were chairs as well as a security desk in the lobby in the city-owned building. But following a complaint from a fellow tenant, the city has removed the security desk and have instructed staff to remove any chairs placed by residents in the lobby.
A memo from Judy Tobin, senior housing officer in the city’s Community Services Department, said the city is creating and enforcing a “barrier free lobby space.”
“Tenants are welcome to use the sitting area next to the lobby while waiting for company and/or rides,” reads the memo, dated Jan. 22.
“This area has large windows that look directly onto the parking lot. This area may also be used for socialization. Furniture in this area is to remain where it is and not moved under any circumstances. Security staff has been advised to enforce the barrier free lobby area.”
Tobin did not return a message left requesting comment. A spokeswoman for the City of St. John’s said city policy is for councillors to handle media interviews.
The sitting area is divided from the rest of the lobby by a wall, meaning tenants who need to rest after entering or who are leaving after a ride arrives have to walk up and down the length of the lobby — a problem for many of the building’s tenants who have mobility or respiratory problems, or who find the sitting area too confining, said the tenant.
During the power outage, she said, tenants gathered in the lobby, but the sitting area didn’t have enough space so more chairs were moved into the lobby. City staff have been removing the chairs and placing them back into the lobby, she said.
“Most of us here are 60-plus,” said the tenant. “There’s several people here who are handicapped. There’s five or six more who’ve got heart problems. Circulation problems. They can’t come in through that door with their groceries and try to walk around there and get a cart and go back out and put the groceries in the cart and keep going to the elevator without sitting down. They cannot do it.”
But not all of the building’s tenants want the chairs there. The city began enforcing a barrier-free space after one of the tenants complained.
“In the 30 years that this building has been on the go, there has never been a problem,” she said, attributing the complaints to handful of residents who want to impose strict rules on everyone in the building.
“The people that are complaining are people who want to rule the roost, as far as we’re concerned. They say they’re intimidated when they come in because there’s people there sitting down, talking and laughing. How come they’re not intimidated when they’re in the Avalon Mall?”
Another tenant, who also asked not to be named, said there are a few residents he considers bullies.
“These bullies are complaining every bloody day, and sometimes two or three times a day,” he said. “They definitely want control.”
Residents who want the chairs to stay — and who took issue with what they consider the heavy-handed tone of the memo from Tobin — have signed a petition and raised the issue with Galgay at a meeting Monday.
Galgay said he’d look into it, and told residents at the meeting that they could put chairs in the lobby in the interim. City staff removed those chairs the next day.
Galgay said he supports the residents who want to keep chairs in the lobby.
“We need to work to come to some type of compromise and a balance to ensure that those residents, especially those that have various types of needs and disabilities, have access to either a bench or a chair so that they can wait for a bus or other forms of transportation,” he said.
He said city staff have been too strict with residents.
“The city did issue a notice to residents saying they were going to strictly enforce this, they were going to remove the chairs and make it a barrier-free hallway, when in fact there’s actually a Pepsi machine that’s in the same area as where the residents have been advised that it’s to be kept barrier-free.”
He says he’ll be raising the issue at city council’s Monday meeting, adding he’s already received “pushback” from city staff.
“They questioned my interference, as I guess you could say on the matter,” he said. “I was completely disappointed with that, as an elected official.”
Everyone with the city has a responsibility to run things properly and fairly, he said.
“From time to time, if there’s a need to interfere with some decisions that staff make, especially in this circumstance, where it affects the most vulnerable in society, those with disabilities and seniors, I’ll certainly do it again if I have to.”
Coun. Bernard Davis, chairman of the community services committee, which oversees city housing, said the lobby needs to be kept clear to prevent anyone from being impeded from entering or leaving, especially during an emergency.
“It’s not a very big lobby,” he said, adding that it has been a problem of more than just a couple of people sitting in chairs, but in fact a lobby full of chairs.
“We can’t have a congregation of people in the foyer — it’s difficult to get people in and out of the building. … We’ve heard the concerns of the residents there, and we’re working through a lot of them as we speak.”
Davis said the city is working on removing the Pepsi machine from the lobby as well.
Davis called back later to say staff will allow residents a single chair in the sitting area while a more permanent solution can be worked out. Residents have suggested removing a portion of the partition that separates the lobby from the sitting area.