Beacon Hill redesign goes to court

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In a case pitting disability advocates against historic preservation activists, the Beacon Hill Civic Association filed a lawsuit in state court on August 12, to halt a planned reconstruction of the historic Boston neighborhood.

The lawsuit came a day after the city of Boston began construction on the project, which includes the installation of more than 250 ramps on Beacon Hill.

“We completely support accessibility on Beacon Hill and making Beacon Hill accessible to everyone,” Keeta Gilmore, president of the BHCA, told WGBH News. “We have never had any kind of argument with the city’s plans for the number of ramps they want to put in or the improvements to the existing ramps. Our complaint has been with the materials that they use.”

Along with being extremely steep, Beacon Hill’s uneven brick surfaces make it one of the city’s most inaccessible neighborhoods. Under the construction plan that began August 11, the city would replace many of the bricks with concrete ramps and plastic warning labels.

Originally, the city intended to make the labels yellow, to make them more visible, but settled on red labels, more in line with the neighborhood’s historic character.

“What further makes it difficult for me and other people that use wheelchairs is the love affair that the city has with brick,” said Christine Griffin, who works on Beacon hill as director of the Disability Law Center, in the WGBH News article. “Brick sidewalks may be pretty, but they are pretty inaccessible, they’re constantly breaking. You see upheavals of them.”

The BHCA, created in 1922, has proposed multiple alternatives, including wide-cut brick and concrete, as opposed to brick, ramps. It has also suggested alternative designs, such as shared streets, which involves raising street levels to that of the historic sidewalks.

In the lawsuit, filed in the Suffolk Superior Court, the BHCA argues that the City violated state procedural requirements for construction projects in historic areas.

Under a 1955 law, the City, prior to undergoing reconstruction on Beacon Hill, must obtain a certificate of appropriateness from the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission. This Commission consists of 5 members, two of whom are nominated by the BHCA.

In 2012, the City announced that it planned to revamp four of its nine historic districts, to bring them into compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines.

The BHCA twice rejected the city’s redesign plans for Beacon Hill, most recently in December 2013.

In June, the city Inspectional Services Department determined the neighborhood’s ramps and intersections were unsafe and thus should be immediately upgraded, according to the Boston Globe.

On June 17, recently elected Mayor Martin Walsh announced that the City would begin construction on Beacon Hill, on the grounds that this determination allows the City to bypass the requirement to obtain a certificate of appropriateness from the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, according to the Boston Globe.

Accordingly, the BHCA, in the lawsuit, argues that this step violated the 1955 law and the Massachusetts Historical Preservation Act. It also argues that the process violates the state’s Environmental Policy Act.

The ADA Accessibility Guidelines require that facilities eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, or designated as historic under state law, comply with the architectural guidelines of the National Historic Preservation Act.

A video regarding the dispute, from WGBH News, can be seen here.

Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of this DisAbility Rights Galaxy, and Disability Law Center are part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and members of the National Disability Rights Network, NDRN.