Since it opened to the public back in March, Vessel—the Thomas Heatherwick-designed sculptural centerpiece of the Hudson Yards megaproject—has been criticized for its lack of accessibility for people in wheelchairs or with other mobility issues.
The piece, which is made up of more than 150 interconnected staircases and 80 platforms, has one elevator that deposits users on Vessel’s various levels; once they’re off the elevator, there is no way to move around. The elevator is also located on the southern side of the piece, keeping visitors who must use it from experiencing more of the views and levels that able-bodied users have access to.
But that will soon change: The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced today that it has come to an agreement with Related Companies, the developer of Hudson Yards, to make Vessel more accessible to all. Under the terms of the agreement, Related must design and install “a one-of-a-kind platform lift mechanism” that will make it possible for people with disabilities to get to the top levels of Vessel, which are perhaps the most popular sections of the attraction.
In the agreement, SDNY asserts that under the Americans With Disabilities Act, Vessel is a place of public accommodation—an assertion that Related disputes in the text of the agreement—and as such, must increase the level of accessibility that is currently provided. It stipulates that by January 2021, Related will design and install platform lifts (either a single lift, or two separate ones) that will be able to bring visitors with disabilities to the top of Vessel.
But other changes will go into effect sooner: According to the agreement, Related must ensure that Vessel’s current elevator stops at all levels (it has been known to skip the fifth and seventh ones due to crowding issues), as well as modify the ticketing system that’s currently in place to allow those who need to use the elevator to request special access. Those changes are required by March 1, 2020.
“We are pleased that Related has designed an innovative solution to increase accessibility to the Vessel,” Gregory Berman, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, said in a statement. “Related has agreed to commit substantial resources to install a platform lift that will allow individuals with disabilities to enjoy 360-degree views from the Vessel’s top level.”
In the months since Vessel opened, disability rights advocates have staged protests in front of the sculpture, and critics have called out the ableism inherent in the structure. Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange recently called the sculpture’s elevator “a begrudging nod to accessibility requirements,” and wrote:
If Vessel’s designers were willing to push beyond its stepwell inspiration, they could have made the stairs and the elevator equal access, and equally fun. You know what else can be fun? A ramp.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Related said the company is “committed to accessibility for everyone.”
“[F]rom the very beginning, we have been collaborating with disability advocates to ensure access across all experiences,” the statement continues. “At Vessel, we opened with an elevator enabling all visitors to enjoy multiple levels, including the summit, and are pleased to expand on that with additional lifts that will traverse the top levels further maximizing the experience of this one-of-a-kind sculptural attraction for people with disabilities.”
Heatherwick Studio confirmed to Curbed that it has been “working closely” with Hudson Yards on a design for the required lift mechanism. “The studio has always been committed to ensuring Vessel’s ongoing success as a publicly accessible space,” a spokesperson for the studio said in a statement, “and we are pleased that these new measures will further expand its experience for even more people with disabilities to enjoy.”