The showdown between the Beacon Hill Civic Association and Mayor Marty Walsh over concrete, handicap-accessible sidewalk ramps carries with it a whiff of class warfare, along with a faint scent of that old Boston political staple.
In a complaint filed in Suffolk Superior Court, the Beacon Hill Civic Association is claiming that the move by Walsh to install the ramps violates state law and jeopardizes the area’s “unique and irreplaceable historic nature.”
A spokesman for Walsh said the ramp installation “is about accessibility and compliance.”
However, when asked about the suit, a Walsh adviser quipped: “I’m surprised they didn’t suggest those spiked grates that prevent you from driving out of a rental car lot. Luckily for the handicapped, Marty got, like five votes, out of there.”
It was more than five, but not much more. Walsh won the mayor’s office with 51 percent of the vote against rival John Connolly. But on Beacon Hill, Connolly crushed Walsh with 83 percent of the vote. In that part of town, Connolly, the Harvard-educated city councilor from West Roxbury, was considered more urbane than Walsh, the state rep from Dorchester.
So, maybe Walsh is deriving more than the usual pleasure from his principled stand. If so, he deserves that feeling. The neighborhood has been resisting ramps for years and getting away with it. As city corporation counsel Eugene O’Flaherty sees it, “Most folks would be shaking their head at the prospect of us not doing everything we can to accommodate folks in wheelchairs. At this point in society, it’s almost like a discussion of whether we should have separate water coolers.”
On its website, the civic association asserts that it is not trying to thwart handicap accessibility. “The only issue we have with the city’s proposal is the materials (concrete and plastic),” it notes.
Some Beacon Hill residents had been talking granite for the ramps. Now, according to the civic association website, bricks it describes as “wire-cut” are acceptable. However, from the city’s perspective, options like granite or brick would add too much to the average $6,000 cost of a concrete pedestrian ramp.
According to the Globe, the civic association disputes the city’s contention that the ramps are needed to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Most of the intersections are already accessible to people with disabilities, the complaint claims; and, if they’re not, “increased accessibility for persons with disabilities and preservation of the character of the historic district are mutually compatible.”
The complaint also contends that the city did not get necessary permission from the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, Massachusetts Historical Commission, and the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
The civic association is known for waging war against any development its members fear will undercut the neighborhood’s historic aura. In 1996, the association lost an epic battle to keep Toscano, a Charles Street restaurant, from acquiring an all-liquors license. In a decision cast at the time as a curb on the power of neighborhood groups, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the restaurant could ignore an earlier private agreement struck with the civic group, in which the restaurant owner promised to limit liquor sales to beer and wine.
But civic association members remain sticklers for tradition. At Christmas time, when laurel is draped around the neighborhood’s old gas lamp posts, it’s wrapped counter-clockwise, with leaves facing up, not down. Civic association members are ever suspicious of change, whether it involves additions or demolition, and they’re not crazy about students. After years of running up against civic association opposition to its expansion plans, Suffolk University opted to shift its campus closer to Downtown Crossing. The surrender came once it became clear that then Mayor Thomas M. Menino would not cross the association.
Finally, a mayor is standing up to it..
Strictly on the merits, revenge is especially sweet.
For the record: In my Aug. 10 column, I wrote that with the recent appointment of Justice Geraldine Hines, the Supreme Judicial Court now has a majority of female justices for the first time. However, for about three months in 2000, four of seven justices were also female.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.