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Beacon Hill group aims to stop disabled ramps

Group says city’s plan harms character

“The plaintiffs seek to prohibit the City [of Boston] from reconstructing or altering the sidewalks and streetscape in the historic district using historically inappropriate materials and designs,” the Beacon Hill Civic Association said in the complaint.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

After years of fighting efforts to install concrete handicapped- accessible ramps throughout Beacon Hill, the neighborhood’s civic association filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the city, contending that Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s recent announcement that he would begin the long-delayed work violated state law and jeopardizes the area’s “unique and irreplaceable historic nature.”

“The plaintiffs seek to prohibit the City [of Boston] from reconstructing or altering the sidewalks and streetscape in the historic district using historically inappropriate materials and designs,” the Beacon Hill Civic Association said in the complaint filed in Suffolk Superior Court.

The lawsuit was brought on the same day that city workers began installing the first of more than 250 ramps designed to make it easier for people with disabilities to navigate the neighborhood.


“At this time we intend to continue moving forward with the work as planned,” said Kate Norton, a spokeswoman for Walsh.

She said the city had yet to receive the lawsuit.

Keeta Gilmore, who chairs the civic association’s board of directors, said by phone that Walsh has circumvented the process for making changes to the sidewalks.

She said her organization has looked at ramps in historic districts across the country, and that there are “lots of wonderful ideas” being applied elsewhere.

“Coming to the table and discussing [building] materials and something that’s more appropriate when you have brick sidewalks is absolutely our goal,” Gilmore said.

Norton said in a statement that the city has engaged neighborhood groups for a long time.

“We are confident that we have taken all of the appropriate steps to ensure public safety,” she said.

In the lawsuit, the civic association rejected the city’s contention that the planned sidewalk changes are necessary to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The city purports to be undertaking this work to increase accessibility in the historic district to persons with disabilities under the ADA by removing existing brick sidewalk accessibility ramps at the intersections in the historic district and replacing them with poured concrete sidewalk ramps and plastic warning panels,” the complaint stated.


“However, the majority of the sidewalks at the intersections in the historic district are already accessible to persons with disabilities. More fundamentally, increased accessibility for persons with disabilities and preservation of the character of the historic district are mutually compatible.”

In addition, the city has failed to obtain the required approval from the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, Massachusetts Historical Commission, and the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, according to the lawsuit.

Over the past year, Beacon Hill residents have suggested other building options, including granite ramps instead of concrete.

City officials believe granite ramps would be too expensive to be used on such a broad scale, given that concrete pedestrian ramps already cost the city on average about $6,000 apiece.

In December, the architectural commission, which the state Legislature established in 1955 to preserve the neighborhood’s historical integrity, used its authority to block a compromise plan that would have brought the neighborhood into compliance with the disabilities act.

Last month, the city’s Inspectional Services Department determined that the neighborhood’s ramps and intersections were unsafe and should be upgraded as soon as possible.

In a tense meeting with residents shortly afterward, Walsh said that determination allowed him to bypass the architectural commission.

But in the lawsuit filed Tuesday, the association challenged the validity of the inspectional services assessment and warned of dire consequences if the city bypasses state-mandated approval processes to move forward with its current plan. “The historic district will suffer palpable and irreparable diminution of its historic character,” the suit states.


The association also said, in a statement, that ensuring that the neighborhood is accessible and compliant with the disability act is “our top priority,” adding that they support improvements with “historically appropriate materials.”


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Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.