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Blocked sidewalk at Heights Plaza forces wheelchairs into traffic

| Thursday, April 25, 2013, 12:41 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Fencing blocks off the roadway in front of the former Macy's and UPMC facility at the Heights Plaza in Harrison, blocking access to pedestrians and may have contributed to a man in a wheelchair being struck by a truck earlier this week.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Fencing blocks off the sidewalk along J.P. Marino Boulevard on the side of the former Macy's and UPMC facility at the Heights Plaza, blocking access to pedestrians and may have contributed to a man in a wheelchair being struck by a truck earlier this week.

The accident on Monday that injured a wheelchair-bound Harrison man is focusing attention on public safety at the Heights Plaza.

Dave Schultz, 49, who has multiple sclerosis and requires the use of a motorized wheelchair, was injured around noon Monday while navigating around the construction zone at the fire-damaged shopping center.

Kim Schultz, who was with her husband at the time, said her husband broke a bone in his left foot after a tractor-trailer struck his wheelchair while turning to leave the plaza.

Schultz, who was belted into the wheelchair, was knocked over and his wheelchair was extensively damaged.

“Nobody would listen to me, and I kept saying somebody is going to get hit,” Kim Schultz said. “My husband's wheelchair is electric. And if it wasn't built the way it was, he would have been killed.”

The Schultzes live in the Harrison Hi-Rise, which is next to the strip shopping center off Broadview Boulevard.

Kim Schultz is upset that elderly and disabled people, many of whom live in the high-rise and rely on the Heights Plaza to shop for essentials, are being exposed to a dangerous situation.

“I would say she's got a point,” said Harrison Police Chief Mike Klein.

Construction crews have been working on restoring a portion of the shopping center that was badly damaged by a fire in December.

A fence separates the construction zone from the parking lot and denies access to the sidewalk.

That forces people on foot or in wheelchairs to go through the parking lot along the fence or along busy Broadview Boulevard and then down the main entrance road, J.P. Marino Boulevard, exposing them to vehicular traffic.

“They blend in with traffic and they are too underpowered to do that,” said Harrison Patrolman Scott Faulkner, who investigated the accident.

“It's a convoluted and hazardous route to navigate on foot or by wheelchair,” Chief Klein said. “There's not safe access if someone wanted to make their way from one end to the other.”

He said that the access road behind the shopping center is not an option because it is riddled with potholes, making it difficult for wheelchair to use. Plus, there is truck traffic for store deliveries.

However, Klein said that he doesn't see any laws being broken that would lead to charges against the property's owner, Indigo Management of Far Hills, N.J., and Indigo's principal figure, Steve Kogut.

Phone messages from a Valley News Dispatch reporter seeking comment for this story were not returned by Kogut or anyone at Indigo.

Schultz said the biggest problem is at the corner that formerly was occupied by Macy's and now houses UPMC doctors' offices. A wide, landscaped barrier with high curbs separates Marino Boulevard from the parking lot, with the Broadview Boulevard intersection at one end and the intersection at UPMC's corner on the other.

The fence that encloses the construction zone extends out from the storefronts all the way to the landscaped barrier, leaving no room between.

That forces people in wheelchairs to go around that barrier onto Marino Boulevard.

“All we were asking is for them to move the fence in at the corner a few feet so that people in wheelchairs can get up on the sidewalk — or not even up on the sidewalk, but just stay in the parking lot,” Kim Schultz said. “They (wheelchair-bound pedestrians) have to travel with the vehicles.”

When a Valley News Dispatch reporter asked to speak to the project manager, workers doing the renovations said there is no single person in charge of the overall site. They said different crews are handling separate aspects of the renovation work.

“The landlord currently has his renovators there,” said UPMC spokeswoman Susan Manko. “It is not UPMC construction at all. We don't have any oversight over that.”

Klein believes that there should be a defined public access route through the plaza and thinks that could be done without interfering with construction. He said he called Kogut but received no response.

Klein said he would write a letter to Kogut urging some kind of accommodation before somebody else is injured or even killed.

“Public safety certainly wasn't considered with this layout,” the chief said.

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at tyerace@tribweb.com.

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