By Julie Shapiro
TRIBECA — Payphones are vanishing from the streets of New York, but not fast enough for Shimon Zlotnikov.
For years, Zlotnikov has been trying to get rid of the pair of standing payphone booths outside the building his family owns on Warren Street in TriBeCa. The unlit booths, which are partially shielded from the elements by a metal backing and roof overhang, but have no door, are concealed enough to attract unsafe and sometimes illegal behavior, he said.
"I’ve witnessed drug sales," said Zlotnikov, 35. "I’ve witnessed people drinking alcohol and moving alcohol from one container to another. I’ve witnessed people urinating and defecating. I’ve witnessed sexual activity."
In addition, he said, the phones inside the booths only function sporadically.
Zlotnikov could turn his back on the booths and leave them to the city to clean, but he said he tackles the mess each morning, cleaning out alcohol bottles and plastic bags that look like they once held drugs because he wants to keep the area clean for his discount shop on the ground floor and for his yoga studio tenant above.
He's also maintained a years-long campaign of sending complaint letters and phone calls in hopes of getting the booths removed — an effort that resulted in a first-ever meeting last week with payphone owner Titan Outdoor Communications, Community Board 1 and city officials.
Patrick Fergus, a payphone coordinator for the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, told those assembled that he understood the frustration over the unsavory activity inside the phone booths
"It’s a constant battle," Fergus told CB1’s Quality of Life Committee last Thursday night. "We certainly understand the issues."
Fergus said the city has inspected the Warren Street phone 30 times in the past several years and it complies with all regulations. The only way to force the owner to move it would be for NYPD officers to observe illegal behavior in the booth and declare it a public nuisance, he said.
Allen Chapman, director of payphones for Titan, said his company would be willing to move the phone voluntarily, but they have not been able to find another place to put it.
The city has a series of rules restricting where payphones are allowed, including barring them from being too close to fire hydrants. In addition, Titan would have to get permission from the landlord of the building at the phone’s new location, Fergus said.
Fergus added that it’s not Titan’s fault that the phones inside their booths often don’t work — Verizon is the one responsible for maintaining the service, and Verizon has been so slow to repair problems that the city may consider legal action, Fergus said.
A Verizon spokesman said the company was aware of the problems and was working with Titan to resolve them as soon as possible.
Once nearly ubiquitous, payphones are now a waning presence on the city’s streets, as people increasingly use cellphones instead. There were 45,000 payphones in the five boroughs at the peak in the 1980s, but there are now just 15,000, Fergus said. Community Board 1 once had more than 600 payphones but now has only about 300, he said.
Zlotnikov said after Thursday’s meeting that he has given up on the idea of a quick solution, but he hopes that one could arrive eventually. He plans to keep up his search to find alternate payphone locations, and tries to remain patient with the process.
"It’s definitely been a lesson in bureaucracy," he said.