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Group Blasts Learning Annex Boxes as a Sidewalk Blight

By Amy Zimmer | July 26, 2011 6:40am

MANHATTAN — They're grimy, graffiti-covered, broken or full of trash, and many Upper East Siders can't wait to get rid of them. 

They're the ill-maintained sidewalk newspaper boxes covering area sidewalks, and they're considered an eyesore by many community advocates. The worst offenders, they say, come from the Learning Annex.

"I think there's great neglect of the boxes on the part of Learning Annex," said Rita Hirsch, who chairs the streetscape committee for  Civitas, a community advocacy group on the Upper East Side and East Harlem.

"I have not seen one clean Learning Annex box. I will keep looking," she added.

The Learning Annex — whose seminars, lectures and classes across North America feature the likes of Donald Trump, Sarah Jessica Parker, Deepak Chopra and P. Diddy — has 1,500 news racks on the city's streets, 1,200 of which are in Manhattan, according to its COO Harry Javer.

Civitas said that many Learning Annex boxes have been empty for weeks — and may be in violation of Department of Transportation rules.

"There are hundreds of Learning Annex boxes across New York, sometimes multiple boxes in the same location," said Civitas' Hunter Armstrong, who has been tracking the boxes since early July.

"As a conservative estimate, I have probably observed 50 empty boxes over this time period, in parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.  In that time period, I have not seen a single box with a publication."

This would raise red flags under DOT rules, which state: "In no event shall such newsrack remain empty for a period of more than 30 consecutive days."

Hirsch said she's been monitoring the Learning Annex boxes since the end of June. The 40 or so boxes she's peeked into, from the Upper East Side and Kips Bay to Times Square, have all been empty.

Armstrong believes that the Learning Annex boxes he's seen sitting empty are "an example of how the rules aren't being followed." Making matters worse, the Learning Annex boxes seem to be particularly prone to vandalism, he claimed, providing an image of a decapitated box.

Armstrong said that a volunteer from his group had called the Learning Annex and was informed that the company did not publish any new catalogs over the summer and wouldn't be coming out with a new edition until the fall. Hirsch said the last copy of their catalog she saw was from April/May.

Javer, however, disputed that.

"We publish in the summer," he said in an email to DNAinfo. "The summer issue was in the boxes. We are reprinting shortly." He said the new copies would be out "in a few weeks."

 Javer thought the DOT was doing an "outstanding job" with enforcement.

"We take these codes and regulations very seriously and our record over the past 10 years has been virtually perfect when it comes to maintaining our street boxes," he said.

"We have worked with members of Civitas in the past regarding any issues related to these boxes," he added.

A Department of Transportation spokesman confirmed that the agency inspected Learning Annex newsracks this month in response to complaints and issued 15 notices of correction. The department plans to re-inspect and issue violations if the problems persist, he said.

Armstrong called the Learning Annex the "most egregious example" of an offending news box, but said there were other empty boxes also causing ungainly street clutter.

Civitas is on a mission to raise awareness about the problems with the boxes. Advocates have visited community boards to talk about the issue, and have garnered more than 200 signatures on a petition calling on the City Council to hold a hearing on how to improve policies and enforcement of newsracks.

In a recent survey Civitas conducted, more than 45 percent of locals said they'd like to see a decrease in stationary objects that obstruct sidewalk space, including newsrack boxes, sidewalk vendor stands, outside stores and street furniture.

City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin's office plans to conduct a survey of newsracks this summer, her office said.

Civitas' recent fight against A-1 newsboxes helped get many of those blue boxes off the street, Armstrong said.