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Residents Shocked That They Saved Winter Garden Staircase

By Julie Shapiro | June 20, 2011 7:04am | Updated on June 20, 2011 9:59am

By Julie Shapiro

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

BATTERY PARK CITY — Justine Cuccia devoted dozens of hours and hundreds of emails to fighting the demolition of the Winter Garden's Grand Staircase — but she never quite expected to succeed.

"I didn't think Brookfield [Properties] would be swayed," Cuccia said, referring to the owner of the World Financial Center, whose executives repeatedly insisted the stairs had to go. "It was sort of a David-and-Goliath situation."

So Cuccia was just as surprised as anyone else when Brookfield quietly announced last Thursday that the beloved marble stairs, which were rebuilt after 9/11 and became a monument to resilience, would emerge unscathed from the company's $250 million overhaul of the office complex.

While Brookfield may make some changes to the back of the staircase, the 40 curving steps will stay exactly as they are, a Brookfield spokesman confirmed Friday.

To Cuccia, 49, a longtime Battery Park City resident, Brookfield's decision proved that her seemingly quixotic fight had been worthwhile after all.

"I'm very, very happy," Cuccia said Friday morning, still sounding amazed. "I'm really happy they listened to the community."

Cuccia launched her grassroots campaign in March, at a moment when even the most vocal opponents of Brookfield's plan appeared resigned to the staircase's demise.

Executives at Brookfield, an international office developer, had repeatedly insisted that the stairs would create a dangerous choke point at the exit of a new pedestrian tunnel underneath West Street, so they had to be demolished.

The odds of success didn't matter to Cuccia at that point — she just knew she couldn't sit by and watch the stairs destroyed.

"We lost so much on 9/11," said Cuccia, who has two daughters and has lived in Battery Park City since 1997. "We lost our way of life, our sense of security. We just wanted one thing to be back to the way it was. Having the stairs there is a rock — it's an anchor."

Back in March, Cuccia quickly recruited Marilyn Masaryk and Roberta Kahan, who have both lived in Battery Park City since the early 1980s, and the three of them started a petition that ultimately collected more than 1,600 signatures.

"I was convinced the stairs were coming down," Masaryk recalled on Friday. "But at the end of the process I wanted to be able to say that I gave it my best effort."

Masaryk and Kahan spent many hours collecting signatures near Gateway Plaza, where they live, and at neighborhood events. They were planning their next move last week — some residents wanted to hold a protest and joked about chaining themselves to the stairs — when, suddenly, the fight was over.

"We did it," Masaryk said. "I'm ecstatic…. It's a nice feeling — you can fight City Hall and win."

Others also deserve credit for Brookfield's reversal, including City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden and Community Board 1 Chairwoman Julie Menin, who were early advocates for the stairs, along with the Service Employees International Local 32BJ union which set up a website to funnel complaints to Brookfield executives and public officials.

The Battery Park City Authority stepped in this spring and hired a third-party engineer to search for a way to maintain the stairs, which ultimately led to the plan Brookfield accepted.

But the three Battery Park City residents were the ones who kept the pressure on over the past three months — even when they didn't think they would win.

"I thought there was no chance [we could] save them," Kahan said Friday. "But I'm so glad we did. It wouldn't have been the same without them."