MELBOURNE - Senior residents of Trinity Towers are still struggling to recover a bus route that used to drop them off inside the Melbourne Shopping Center, on Hibiscus and Babcock.
The Space Coast Area Transit vehicle would pick them up at their senior housing residence and drop them off in front of the Publix inside the shopping center. In May, however, SCAT authorities received a direct written request from SITE Centers to remove the bus from inside the premises. SITE Centers, previously DDR Melbourne LLC., acquired the Melbourne Shopping Center through a merge in November of 2018 and is the sole owner of the property.
It had been previously reported that the transit-dependent residents received no warning - it is now known that SCAT authorities did communicate with Trinity Towers and encouraged the residents to make their voices heard. The transit agency even reached out to the city themselves, as they knew what this change would mean for the seniors.
“We were very concerned when we first heard that SITE Centers might ask us to leave the center. We fought for the seniors and disabled to continue to have transit access,” said Lance Parker, manager of operations and maintenance at SCAT. “We immediately alerted the seniors at Trinity Towers and asked them to make themselves heard and our director even went to Melbourne City Hall to see if they could help.”
Wanda Pope, 72, resident of the West tower acted on this warning. She went “building to building” and gathered about 300 signatures, which her fellow resident John Meister then delivered to City Hall in behalf of the residents. Their petition was to have their bus route restored and they have not been silent since.
SCAT Transit Director Scott Nelson contacted the City of Melbourne and was told the shopping center was going through renovations. The city suggested that SCAT provide new bus stops for the residents but that little else could be done over a private property request.
“They told me the Shopping Plaza was going to do a whole facelift and we were probably told to leave because of the construction,” said Mr. Nelson. “They said there wasn’t anything we could do because it was private property. The city was helpful to advise us on bus stop locations (…) that would be the best alternatives for the seniors.”
Though the issue may seem trivial to some, to the residents, this change in their bus route is paramount. Many of the seniors are between 70 to 95 years old, and injured or disabled, so being dropped off outside of the center poses great disadvantages, even dangers, for them. The grass and the uneven, broken sidewalks make it hard for them to maneuver their walkers and wheelchairs, and the slow, long walk to the storefronts can be a hazard under the hot Florida sun.
“I used to go every day but I can’t handle it anymore,” said Mickey Rostin, 84, resident of the West tower. “I’m too nervous. Almost fainted a couple of weeks ago.”
Mr. Nelson also said SCAT faces space limitations for installing shelters at the current stops. It would interfere with FPL underground utility lines and cause sight issues with drivers exiting the plaza. Placing shelters at an alternate location would only make the walk even longer for the seniors and put them further in harm’s way. He said even if they could, the process can take up to year.
“It is a lengthy process to put up bus shelters,” said Mr. Nelson. “It is a construction project, with engineering and permitting. The project must meet ADA requirements. The shelters must meet certain specifications.”
The issue has affected the quality of life of the seniors. Some have had to cut back on their shopping and outdoors time, while others have had to endure the unsafe and intense conditions to get their food and medication. It has also affected revenue. Bealls Outlet and other stores in the plaza reported financial losses due to lowered foot traffic and requested in favor of getting the original bus route back.
Yet the ball stops with SITE Centers. SCAT has been in steady communication with the property owners, but to no avail.
On July 23, the Senior Director of Development and Construction at SITE Centers Ken Enghauser, appeared at a City Council Meeting and said that SITE Centers did not put in a request to remove the bus from the plaza. He said the residents could have their route back immediately, and that the renovations include plans for a designated bus pullout area. Terry Jordan, transit planner at SCAT, received the plans via email and was asked to help with any feedback or specifications for said design.
SITE Centers Assistant Property Manager Tracey Joseph, however, sent SCAT email communications contradicting what Mr. Enghauser said to the City Council. Ms. Joseph requested in writing that the bus be removed from the property and said she was not aware of any plans to restore the original bus stop inside the center. SCAT authorities say they were under the impression the current bus stops were temporary, but Ms. Joseph’s emails say otherwise.
“At the end of the day, we were asked to leave by their Assistant Property Manager,” said Mr. Parker. “While we respect the fact that it is private property and they have the choice as to whether or not to allow Space Coast Area Transit at the Melbourne Shopping Center, they need to be up front about their position.”
When Ms. Joseph was approached for comment, she said she “had no idea” about the situation and re-directed to their PR department before disconnecting. On Monday, Mr. Enghauser finally replied that SCAT could restore the bus route until exterior renovations commence this fall. At which point, SCAT will need to reposition the bus route again and, once completed, he said, “the owner will discuss all viable options (…) for safe and efficient bus locations.”
“We aren’t saying they were intentionally dishonest, but when the SITE Centers Assistant Property Manager tells us in writing to leave and the SITE Center construction department tells us that they never asked us to leave and that as far as he was concerned we could come back in tomorrow, at best, there is a communication issue on their part,” said Mr. Parker.
SCAT drivers continue to do their best to help residents in and out of the bus, and accommodate them as far as they can, but the residents’ needs extend past anything SCAT or the City can do for them as of now.
“What is heartbreaking to us is that it is our seniors who are paying with their health, the transit dependent elderly and disabled are struggling to walk in 95-degree heat to get into the plaza, and no one can get a straight answer,” said Mr. Parker.