After years of delays that made Beacon Hill the city’s lone holdout in complying with federal disability laws, Mayor Martin J. Walsh appeared before vociferous residents Thursday night and told them the city will not wait any longer.
The first 13 of more than 250 ramps designed to make it easier for the disabled to navigate the neighborhood will be installed on Beacon Street, between Charles and Park streets, in coming weeks, city officials told more than 125 people who gathered at Suffolk University.
Residents of the historic neighborhood had resisted city efforts to cut ramps into sidewalks and to install tactile warning strips on curbs to help the disabled, arguing the modifications would mar the neighborhood’s Colonial character.
“We’re talking accessibility for folks in Boston,” Walsh said in an interview Thursday night. “If we want to be an inclusive city, we need to make sure people have the opportunity to be inclusive in every neighborhood by getting around.”
The audience presented a series of complaints and solutions regarding an issue that has bedeviled Beacon Hill for years. In some cases, they saw the arrival of ramps as a harbinger of other changes, such as the removal of cherished brick sidewalks.
Mark Kiefer, president of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, said he did not believe there had to be a conflict between the needs of the disabled and the neighborhood’s historic interests.
“We want to be part of a conversation that contemplates those kind of innovative, long-term solutions because we really believe there is no conflict between the ADA mandates and historic preservation,” Kiefer said, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In December, the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission used its authority to block a compromise plan that would have brought the neighborhood into compliance with the disabilities act.
This week, the city’s Inspectional Services Department determined that the neighborhood’s ramps and intersections were unsafe and that they should be upgraded as soon as possible. Walsh, who was firm in his pronouncements to the Beacon Hill residents, said that the determination allows him to bypass the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, which was established in 1955 by the Legislature to preserve the neighborhood’s historic integrity.
He added that city, state, and federal laws require him to make the streets and sidewalks accessible.
“This has been going on for 2½ years,” Walsh said. “For whatever reason, this process got dragged out to a point where we have to do it.”
Walsh’s decision miffed many residents who attended the meeting, who shouted back, raucously clapped, and clamored for the microphone.
Over the past year, Beacon Hill residents have suggested the city use granite ramps, rather than concrete, and granite tactile strips, rather than a composite plastic. They have also said they 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.
City officials and advocates for the disabled say 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.
As for granite ramps, city officials said they would be too expensive to use on such a broad scale, given that 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.
Ultimately, the city pledged to use only as much concrete as necessary to try to keep the ramps as unobtrusive as possible. Terra cotta will be used for the central bumpy part that helps alert the disabled that they are on a ramp.
Walsh said the city would use the same kinds of materials it has used for pedestrian ramps in the city’s other historic districts, such as the Back Bay and South End.
John Winske, executive director of the Disability Policy Consortium, said the disabled are simply asking to be part of the city of Boston.
“We’re not tearing down your neighborhood,” he said. “We’re simply asking to get around without walking in the streets.”
But one Beacon Hill resident who has lived in the neighborhood for more than six decades remained unpersuaded.
Connaught Mahony, whose husband fought to mark Beacon Hill as a historic district, said ramps would ruin the character of the neighborhood.
“Why can’t we have a handicapped lane, just like we have bike lanes?” the 84-year-old asked. “We need to be creative.”
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