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Beacon Hill's ADA Accessible Curb Cut Ramps Brouhaha: A Slippery Slope

In case you've missed it, there's been a long simmering debate about how to bring the historic Boston neighborhood of Beacon Hill and its curbs into compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Beacon Hill ADA Accessible Curb Cut Ramps 1

An example of a curb cut ramp proposed by the city featuring poured concrete and plastic tactile strip

Beacon Hill ADA Accessible Curb Cut Ramps

An example of a first generation Beacon Hill curb cut ramp which everyone agrees needs updating

Last year the City of Boston proposed to remove thousands of square feet of sidewalk bricks and replace them with poured cement and contrasting plastic tactile warning strips at hundreds of modern wheelchair-accessible sidewalk curb cuts it's planning to construct over the coming years throughout Beacon Hill.

The neighborhood's response to reject the city's plan came through votes from both the Beacon Hill Civic Association (BHCA) board of directors and the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission (BHAC), a body established in 1955 to monitor Beacon Hill renovation and development projects.

Concisely, the BHCA and BHAC rejected the plan because the city's proposal calls for historically inappropriate materials to be used within the National Landmark District of Beacon Hill where they contend those materials will adversely impact the character of the neighborhood in violation of the Historic Beacon Hill District's enabling act and BHAC Guidelines.

Whats important to understand, and something many following this story are missing, is that as it stands now first generation brick and granite curb cut ramps are present almost universally at Beacon Hill intersections. Further, both the city and the neighborhood agree with the what of the citys proposal to improve the curb cut ramps, they just differ on the how.

The BHCA and BHAC have stated time and again that they wholeheartedly support handicap accessibility for Beacon Hill. They merely wish for the city to use historically appropriate materials like durable wire-cut bricks for the curb cut ramps and concrete pavers for the tactile strips.

City officials have rejected the neighborhood's counterproposal to use historically appropriate materials citing reasons ranging from cost to citywide uniformity and durability to not wanting to create "exceptionalism" where the treatment of one Boston historic district (Aberdeen Architectural Conservation District, Back Bay Architectural District, Bay State Road/Back Bay West Architectural Conservation District, Bay Village Historic District, Fort Point Channel Landmark District, Historic Beacon Hill District, Mission Hill Triangle Architectural Conservation District, South End Landmark District and the St. Botolph Architectural Conservation District) differs from another.

As a resident of Beacon Hill I'm very disappointed to learn that the mayor, on behalf of the city, has ultimately decided to sidestep the BHCA and the BHAC via a suspiciously timed Inspectional Services Department mandate for ramp improvements citing "public safety." Further, I am concerned that with the precedent of going around the neighborhood set, the city will nibble away at Beacon Hill's unique character unchecked over time.

Let me repeat, we all support handicap accessibility for Beacon Hill. This said, I have to wonder if the mayor and other proponents of the city's proposal have spent anytime on the Hill? I contend that the city can construct as many modern wheelchair-accessible sidewalk curb cuts as it wants and the underlying access issues will remain. The Hill will remain arduous. The sidewalks will remain tricky and uncomfortably narrow owing to the neighborhood's zero lot lines. And everyone will continue to travel (on foot and by wheelchair) in the street the way the people of Beacon Hill have done for centuries.

So what's this brouhaha about? I think State Representative Jay Livingstone said it best in his comments to The Boston Courant (7/25/14), "... the mayor has decided to forgo all process and accountability and do what he wants."

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