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Galleria’s parent company agrees to fix access issues at mall properties

ALBANY – An investigation that centered on the Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga has prompted the Northeast’s largest privately owned shopping mall company to agree to address accessibility problems for disabled customers at its New York properties, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will announce Thursday.

The attorney general’s office, following a review begun in 2013, said Syracuse-based Pyramid Management Group had a number of malls in New York operating out of compliance with state and federal laws assuring access for disabled people in buildings open to the public.

The company has agreed to fix the problems found during inspections by Schneiderman’s office and within 30 days retain a “disability rights consultant” who will report to the attorney general for three years on ways Pyramid is complying with the “assurance of discontinuance” papers it signed with Schneiderman. The attorney general also gets to approve who will serve in the job, which will be paid for by Pyramid.

Pyramid also will pay the state $160,000 to resolve the investigation. The deal states that Pyramid neither admits nor denies the findings by Schneiderman’s office. Details of the agreement were obtained by The Buffalo News on Wednesday.

The company did not return a call seeking comment.

The agreement covers 12 Pyramid malls in New York State, including shopping centers in Cheektowaga, West Seneca, Albany, northern New York, the mid-Hudson Valley and, its largest, Destiny USA in Syracuse.

The examination of Pyramid properties began with a 2013 consumer complaint lodged with the attorney general’s office pertaining to accessibility problems at Champlain Centre, a Plattsburgh mall near the border with Quebec. After surveying several other Pyramid malls, Schneiderman centered the probe on Walden Galleria, which the settlement agreement says is located in a county in which 5.6 percent of the population has an ambulatory disability.

To review the Cheektowaga mall inside and out, the attorney general hired an outside expert knowledgeable about accessibility requirements under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, and the state’s Human Rights Law. An on-site inspection last May found problems in the mall’s parking lots, including several spaces too narrow and a curb cut too steep. Inside, wall-mounted bathroom features were too high, doors were too difficult to open and objects on the floor blocked passage for someone, say, in a wheelchair. Other access problems at Walden Galleria included elevator doors that closed too quickly and low-hanging ceiling areas under escalators with no posted warning signs.

“As a result, individuals with disabilities are not able to fully enjoy and access the goods and services provided at Walden Galleria,” the agreement papers state.

The problems were found even though Pyramid had someone retained to ensure disabled people do not have access barriers at the company’s malls. Besides fixing the accessibility problems found at its malls and retaining a consultant to report on compliance matters to Schneiderman, Pyramid also has agreed to develop internal policies to assure future ADA compliance and that it will annually train certain employees, such as property managers and maintenance staff, on ADA requirements.

Also, future construction or alterations at Pyramid malls will have to be reviewed by the consultant with expertise in accessibility requirements. New accessibility maps of Pyramid’s mall properties, with such information as the locations of handicap parking spaces and accessible public restrooms, also will have to be posted at each of the company stores’ web sites.

The terms of the agreement are in effect for at least three years. The agreement was signed Monday by Pyramid Chief Executive Officer Stephen J. Congel and the case was handled by the attorney general’s civil rights bureau.

Schneiderman said more than 1 million New Yorkers have some level of an ambulatory disability that makes walking either impossible or difficult. “Many New Yorkers with disabilities find it difficult to access shopping malls because of architectural barriers. My office has made it a priority to remove these barriers, and to help ensure that all New Yorkers have access they need to live full and independent lives,” Scheiderman said in a written statement.

The attorney general’s office did not reveal specifics as to whether it had any other New York shopping centers under investigation, but called the Pyramid matter “part of an ongoing initiative to ensure accessibility for individuals with disabilities at public accommodations, retail and otherwise, across New York state.” In 2014, it struck a deal with two developers pertaining to disabled access problems at more than 50 shopping centers.

The new outside consultant Pyramid must retain shall have the funding necessary to be able to inspect all of the company’s 12 malls in the state and will be tasked with everything from reviewing customer complaints about accessibility issues to giving an examination for ADA compliance for any architectural changes at the malls. Two ADA-based reports each year will be required of the consultant, who will have to furnish the reviews to the attorney general’s office each March and September. Access problems uncovered by the consultant will be fixed within 30 days or Pyramid agrees to pay $1,000 for each violation, the deal between the mall developer and Schneiderman states. Substantial alterations at the malls cannot commence until the ADA consultant gives written approval to Pyramid and the attorney general.

The agreement was hailed by advocates as serving retailers and other businesses about accessibility issues. “We really like the idea that the attorney general is making agreements with companies that are going to hold them responsible for their obligation under state and federal law,” said Todd Vaarwerk, director of advocacy and public policy at Western New York Independent Living. The group provides an array of services to help people with a range of disabilities live independently in five Western New York counties.

Often, Vaarwerk said, accessibility problems involving retail places are handled in national lawsuits against a particular retailer. He said Schneiderman’s investigation of a large mall developer should provide an impetus for other mall owners to better consider access issues.

“It is our hope that the message will go out to the commercial developer that access can’t be an afterthought, that you have to consider it during planning and during design phase and during construction,” he said.

The agreement calls for a series of deadlines, including timetable for the consultant to review all the company’s malls for ADA compliance and a “remediation date” by which time Pyramid must fix those problems. Some of the provisions of the deal come right from the federal ADA: ensuring that doors have proper hardware so no more than 5 pounds of force is needed to open them.

Mall tenants also are affected by the agreement. Pyramid has agreed to amend its standard retail lease form to ensure future tenants certify that plans for a store have been reviewed for ADA compliance by a licensed architect or accessibility specialist. The requirement also will apply to existing retail tenants when their lease is renewed.

Existing anchor store tenants will be getting letters from Pyramid confirming they are subject to accessibility requirements and they will be requested to do a store survey to ensure ADA compliance. For other existing stores, the agreement states Schneiderman’s office “reserves the right” to open an investigation against them if they are out of ADA compliance.