Beacon Hill residents are being scorned for insisting that city officials respect the architectural integrity of this historic neighborhood during efforts to upgrade accessibility ramps for the disabled. Actually, the preservationists are right — but in Boston, that only guarantees they will get roughed up twice as hard.
So far, the narrative goes something like this: The arrogant Van Doughs of Beacon Hill — aided by their powerful civic association — are suing the city to stop the construction of handicapped ramps in the historic district bounded by Beacon Street, Bowdoin Street, Cambridge Street, and Storrow Drive. Once the pooh-bahs on the south slope get their way, they’ll go quietly back to managing their investment funds in the Cayman Islands.
It’s all nonsense. The civil complaint filed in Superior Court by the Beacon Hill Civic Association expresses clear support for greater accessibility for the disabled along the neighborhood’s narrow, gas-lit streets, which reflect colonial Boston. Residents merely want the city to come up with a better solution than concrete wheelchair ramps and plastic warning panels, which look crummy in the context of a National Historic Landmark District. Beacon Hill residents reasonably propose smooth brick ramps and tactile concrete paving stones for the warning pads that indicate the transition between the street and the sidewalk.
Beacon Hill homeowners can’t so much as choose mortar for exterior repairs without adhering to the guidelines of a state-created architectural commission. Yet Boston Mayor Martin Walsh won’t be bothered to build handicapped ramps with materials that blend in better with the neighborhood. Walsh and Inspectional Services chief William “Buddy” Christopher — who hail from the same working-class section of Dorchester — might enjoy sticking it to the wealthy on Beacon Hill. But it all amounts to nothing more than reverse snobbery.
Beacon Hill residents have gotten a bum rap. While residents in less affluent sections of the city — like, say, Hyde Park — are erecting barriers to affordable housing, Beacon Hill residents are knocking such barriers down. Last year, for example, 135 units of affordable housing for the elderly and disabled on Beacon Hill hung in the balance. Beacon House on Myrtle Street, operated by the nonprofit Rogerson Communities, was in a bind. An investor with a majority stake had invoked its contractual right to buy out Rogerson, which could have led to the development of luxury housing on the site. Rogerson’s only chance to keep the building affordable in perpetuity was to match the $26 million bid. But even with a state loan, city tax break, and Rogerson’s bold decision to go all in, the effort fell $3 million short.
When word got around, neighbors on Beacon Hill stepped forward to help. It was akin to the bucket brigades organized by citizen firefighters in colonial times. But this time, the buckets contained checks to recapitalize Rogerson.
Beacon Hill resident Meredith Clapp, who has volunteered on behalf of both Beacon House and the Beacon Hill Civic Association, described “a nail-biting effort” to keep affordable housing intact on the top of the hill. That effort is succeeding, she said, because residents, regardless of income, share many values, including the belief that great urban neighborhoods accommodate people from all walks of life.
The wheelchair ramp in the atrium of Beacon House best symbolizes the spirit of this neighborhood. It’s obviously indispensable for disabled residents. But its design features, including a decorative wrought iron railing, fit seamlessly with the historic architecture of Beacon Hill. Neighbors appreciate such attention to detail. So does the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board, which is responsible for ensuring that buildings are safe for the disabled. It gave Beacon House an award for historic design.
All along, this has been the argument of Beacon Hill residents: handicapped access and historic preservation are mutually compatible.
Yes, wealthy Beacon Hill residents could bear the extra costs for building handicapped ramps with brick or other materials more appropriate for a historic district. But they already do more than their fair share to support Boston’s civic spaces. For example, Friends of the Public Garden, an organization with deep roots in the neighborhood, cares for more than 1,000 trees on the Boston Common, Public Garden, and Commonwealth Mall. And the group raised $4 million to restore and maintain the plaza and adjoining parkland near the Brewer fountain at the busy southeast corner of the Common.
Maybe just this once, city officials could acknowledge the contributions and concerns of Beacon Hill residents by redesigning the handicapped ramps with an eye toward both accessibility and historic preservation.
Beacon Hill residents reasonably propose smooth brick ramps and tactile concrete paving stones for wheelchair access.