For years, Carl Richardson has shuffled gingerly across the uneven sidewalks and poorly cut curbs of Beacon Hill, guided by a dog and the hope that a loose brick or an unexpected slope doesn’t trip him up.
His journey would be made far easier by a city proposal to install 259 pedestrian ramps with tactile warning strips throughout the historic neighborhood, as part of a decades-long effort to bring the city’s curbs into compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
But the plan was rejected in December by officials of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission. Why? Because they believed, among other things, that the bumpy plastic strips would mar the neighborhood’s Colonial-era character.
Long after other parts of the city, including other designated historic districts, have come into compliance with the disabilities act or have reached agreements to do so, Beacon Hill remains the lone holdout. It holds that stance despite the fact that the city stands to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds if a plan is not approved within the next month.
“I understand it’s a historic neighborhood, but people with disabilities deserve access like anyone else,” said Richardson, who is blind and hard of hearing. “It’s not right that some people there are putting aesthetics above safety and accessibility.”
When Mayor Martin J. Walsh learned of the vote, he was outraged.
“We’re not talking about ripping down the brownstones or tearing up the brick sidewalks,” Walsh said in a telephone interview. “We’re just trying to make the streets accessible. It’s disappointing. This should be automatic.”
He said he is considering his options and whether it is possible for the city to bypass the commission, which was established in 1955 by the Legislature to preserve the neighborhood’s historic integrity.
“I don’t intend on giving any neighborhood special treatment,” Walsh said. “Every other historic district has agreed to do this. These are small trade-offs to accommodate people with disabilities.”
Opponents of the compliance plan said they are willing to compromise if the city revises its proposal.
For example, they have suggested that the city use granite ramps, rather than concrete, and granite tactile strips, rather than a composite plastic. They would also prefer to see tactile strips in gray, rather than the yellow used elsewhere in Boston or the terra cotta shade that city officials had proposed as part of a compromise.
Steve Young, chairman of the board of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, said he was appalled by the city’s initial proposal to install the yellow tactile strips, which are designed to provide a marked color contrast to help the visually impaired recognize intersections.
“If you look up the hill with them, all you would see were yellow intersections,” he said. “That doesn’t meet the historic requirements.”
He said they went far beyond what was needed.
When the city proposed using terra cotta strips, which would blend in with the brick sidewalks, Young and others said they preferred gray.
“It has a less vivid appearance,” Young said of the gray strips, “and it has sufficient contrast to let visually impaired people know that there’s a change in the pavement.”
Mark Kiefer, a member of the Architectural Commission who voted to reject the city’s proposal, said he worried that the city was “trying to do this on the cheap.”
“The Architectural Commission has never recognized economic exemptions,” he said, noting that it has required residents to use traditional copper gutters rather than modern, less expensive aluminum ones; slate rather than asphalt shingles on refurbished roofs; and wooden windows rather than more affordable vinyl replacements.
“It’s a matter of the visual impact,” he said. “We don’t want prominent things people will see commonly to smack of modernity.”
Richardson and city officials said the terra cotta tactile strips provide less contrast than those in yellow — the international sign for caution — but agreed to use them as long as they are set on a gray ramp. Gray strips are a bad idea, they said.
“Gray just doesn’t offer enough contrast,” said Richardson, who oversees compliance with the Disabilities Act at the State House.
As for granite ramps, city officials said they would be too expensive to use on such a broad scale, where concrete pedestrian ramps already cost the city on average about $6,000 apiece. The granite would cost more than four times as much, they said, and it is prone to cracking.
Granite warning strips cost more than twice the $300 the city pays for composite plastic strips, which hold up well over time, city officials said.
“From a maintenance perspective, an installation perspective, and a cost perspective, granite is not a viable material,” said Katie Choe, chief engineer for the Department of Public Works.
Last week, city officials had planned to go back to the Architectural Commission for approval of the initial stage of the project, which would allow city workers to start installing ramps and tactile strips on Joy Street. But with warnings that the plan could be rejected without a public meeting to discuss the project, city officials pulled the proposal from the commission’s agenda.
Without approval for the plan by the end of March, the city risks losing $560,000 in federal grants as part of a $15 million so-called Tiger grant.
“I think it’s outrageous that after all the compromises from the other historic districts and disability advocates, that this one district could hold up this vital work,” said Kristen McCosh, commissioner of the Boston’s Commission for Persons with Disabilities. “It certainly goes against the city’s hard work and the mayor’s vision of universal access. If people can’t access the sidewalks, they’re not included in the life of the city.”
In the South End, Bay Village, and the Back Bay, the designated historic districts that agreed to a compromise with the city last year, residents also sought a host of changes to the city’s plans.
But under pressure from the city, they all eventually agreed to the installation of concrete ramps and warning strips the color of bricks.
Among those who negotiated for the South End was Stephen Fox, chairman of the Rutland Square Neighborhood Association, who said if the city accedes to the Beacon Hill historic district’s demands, the other neighborhoods will feel like they were treated unfairly and may hold out longer in future negotiations.
“I haven’t heard anyone complaining that they are anything like an egregious architectural pimple on the neighborhood,” he said. “They see them as practical and workable.”
Among those hoping the city gets to work soon on improving Beacon Hill’s byways and intersections is 73-year-old Howard Chadwick, who every few days uses a cane to make his way to a nearby drugstore.
He loves Beacon Hill and its distinct architecture, but after falling twice on the jagged bricks, he wants more done to make it easier to navigate. “The way it is now is not right,” said Chadwick, who owned an antique store in the neighborhood for decades. “There’s no excuse not to fix this.”