Upstairs, downstairs and access for all

Aerospace retirees launch successful mission to help the elderly and disabled by installing elevators in old downtown residential building.

Filmed and edited by Zhou Shengjie. Translated by Yang Jian. Polished by Andy Boreham.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Lin Jiaxie, who lives on the sixth floor of a seven-story old residential building on Yuyuan Road, poses in front of a newly installed elevator. The 78-year-old former general manager of a subsidiary company of the city's space bureau once researched control systems for early strategic missiles.

Retired scientists and officials of China’s early aerospace industry used to shoot for the stratosphere. Today they have engineered a much more modest lift-off.

The group of 12 households has been living in in an old seven-story building for more than three decades. It lacked an elevator. So they worked with authorities to install a lift in the building on Yuyuan Road in the Changning District.

Shanghai has embarked on a campaign to get elevators installed in old buildings, where stairways are a barrier to the elderly and disabled getting out and about.

Unlike other newly installed elevators with steel frames, the lift on Yuyuan Road features a blue glass curtain wall to avoid spoiling the ambiance in a heritage-listed area. It will officially go into operation by the end of September.

Residents in 20 other buildings under the jurisdiction of the Jiangsu Road subdistrict are following the same trajectory, with plans to install elevators in their complexes.

Construction work hasalso started on elevators in old residential buildings in the Xuhui, Hongkou and Minhang districts. Citywide, about new 20 elevators have already gone into operation and more than 50 applications are being evaluated, according to the city's housing authority.

There are about 220,000 buildings without elevators in Shanghai. Among the 1 million households living in these buildings, nearly 40 percent are 60 years or older, the housing authority said.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The 89-year-old Liu Yuezhen (left), the oldest resident in a building on Yuyuan Road and the 83-year-resident Yan Keying (right), who led the application for the lift installation, pose inside the newly installed elevator with their neighbor.

The first elevator under the project was installed in a seven-story building in the Nujiangyuan community in the Putuo District in October 2015.

The residents in that instance had to get clearance from 46 government bodies to get their elevator -- a mammoth process that tended to deter all but the most determined. In 2016, the city government reduced the approval process to just 15 agencies. According to the new policy, a minimum of 90 percent of residents in a building and at least two- thirds of people in a neighborhood have to agree, without clear objections.

Despite the cutting of red tape, residents still have a lot of work to do.

First of all, volunteers need to collect resident feedbackon installing an elevator and to persuade dissenters to fall in with a project. Property management companies have been reluctant to take on those tasks, an official with the authority said.

Secondly, the cost of the elevator is a huge investment for most retirees, even with government subsidies available. The cost has also to be fairly apportioned between lower and upper floors, with those living highest up paying the most.

It costs about 700,000 yuan (US$102,489) to install an elevator in an old building. The city government offers to pay 40 percent of the cost after the elevator is ready for use.

Those seeking elevators have to tread the ground across various government bodies to get all the required rubber stamps, which can take years.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A resident scans a card to take a newly installed elevator at a residential building on Yuyuan Road. The lift will officially go into operation by the end of September.

In the latest case on the aerospace mansion, 83-year-resident Yan Keying, a former senior researcher on radio systems, volunteered to help the local neighborhood committee.

She began her campaign in 2016, and construction work on the elevator started in July 2017.

The success and relative speed of the project has become a valuable reference for other residents seeking to install elevators, according to Cao Lei, Party secretary of the Fushi Neighborhood Committee.

The aerospace bureau built the seven-story mansion in around 1986 to house staff. Most of the residents are now 80 years or older, and the high-rise building they once took such pride in became a source of distress because of its stairs-only access.

"I walked downstairs at most once every week,” said Lin Jiaxie, who lives on the sixth floor. “Increasingly, I felt I was trapped at home."

The 78-year-old former general manager of a subsidiary company of the bureau once researched control systems for early strategic missiles. The system he designed allowed a missile to fly hundreds of miles and hit a target accurately.

Stairs also became a barrier for 89-year-old Liu Yuezhen, the wife of the former Party secretary of the aerospace bureau. After her husband died several years ago, the most senior resident of the building seldom left her third-floor apartment.

The residents of the building sought the help of Yan, who once was in charge of technology patent applications for the bureau.

"I couldn’t bear to see my former comrades suffer so much, and the stairs had also become a challenge to me," said Yan.

She visited several nearby buildings that had managed to install elevators to see how it was done. She also visited people living on the second floor who weren’t keen on the idea to persuade them that installing an elevator would increase the value of their homes.

In the end, each household was charged about 80,000 yuan for the elevator, with high floors paying up to an additional 10,000 yuan, Yan said.

The district government, subdistrict and neighborhood committee also offered support. Two groups of engineers came to survey the building structure and terrain, while a group of architects designed an elevator in harmony with the history of the neighborhood.

The elevator has started trial operations. Senior residents like Lin and Liu can take the elevator by simply scanning a card. Yan said some minor adjustments will be made to a ventilation window to minimize noise.

Lin, who is quite sociable, now said he goes downstairs every day to chat with old colleagues.

Other downtown districts are experimenting with ways to make it easier for older residents to get elevators.

A special agency tasked with installing elevators in old residential buildings has been set up in the Hongkou District, which has a sizable number of such buildings.

The agency can solicit opinions from neighbors, get approvals from government agencies, supervise construction and take charge of elevator maintenance.

It has nine counselors, including former government officials and residents with experience in elevator installation. They will offer free advice to residents across the city. Six elevators have been installed for old residential building in the district with the help of the agency.

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