Beacon Hill activist seeks handicap ramps’ replacement
Urges state to redo them to meet neighborhood’s standards
An outspoken board member of the Beacon Hill Civic Association has threatened top state officials that failure to replace newly installed handicap ramps near one of the nation’s busiest hospitals could result in “action to remove the ramps as violating the Beacon Hill Historic District guidelines.”
The demand was included in a volley of e-mails that board member Robert Whitney sent over the summer to Secretary Richard Davey of the state Department of Transportation, in which he urged the agency to rip up the new concrete ramps with plastic tactile strips in Charles Circle and replace them with “materials that are appropriate” to Beacon Hill.
“DOT should be using more historically appropriate materials,” he wrote.
Whitney’s missives came shortly before the civic association filed a lawsuit this month against the city for installing more than 250 similar handicap ramps throughout the neighborhood, claiming they failed to preserve the area’s Colonial charm.
But this time, with state officials refusing to replace the ramps that assist the blind and disabled and cost thousands of dollars, civic association officials are distancing themselves from their board member. The ramps are located about a block from Massachusetts General Hospital.
“I can’t explain his e-mails,” said Keeta Gilmore, who chairs the civic association’s board of directors. Gilmore did acknowledge, however, that the new ramps took “everyone by surprise” on the board.
When asked about an e-mail that Whitney wrote in June, telling Davey that the civic association would likely vote “on a course of action” to remove the ramps, she said: “I can say we have not discussed any action with regards to the ramp. ... We have taken no action.”
But she added: “I can’t say what could happen.”
In a telephone interview, Davey was adamant that the ramps would remain. “We’re not redoing the work — period,” he said.
Whitney urged Davey to rectify “the mistake” by using significantly more expensive granite for tactile warning strips and wire-cut brick for the ramps.
“The use of granite as the material for the tactile warning panel would fit in well in the Beacon Hill historic district, as there already is a lot of granite in use there,” he wrote.
State officials bridled at the notion they should replace the completed ramps and said they received explicit approval for the materials from the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, which the state Legislature established in 1955 to preserve the neighborhood’s historic integrity.
“We’ve expended what I will guess is thousands of dollars [of] taxpayer money on an approach approved by the [Architectural Commission] that improves the area for the disabled community and pedestrians,” Davey wrote to Whitney. “What is being asked is that we tear out perfectly good work for what many folks, outside of [Beacon Hill], may see as purely aesthetics.”
Department officials said it cost about $3,000 to install the ramps in Charles Circle and would cost an estimated $22,500 to remove them and replace them with wire-cut brick. They were not sure how much it would cost to replace the plastic warning strips with granite but said it would likely cost “a lot more.”
Davey said the department already compromised with local residents, changing the typically yellow tactile strips — considered to provide the best contrast for the blind — with red strips meant to match the neighborhood’s brick sidewalks.
He noted the state was seeking to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act after disabled residents sued the department a decade ago.
“We’ve learned the hard way when they said we weren’t doing enough to make our transportation system accessible,” he said. “The ramps are really a quality-of-life issue for folks who are disabled.”
In a letter sent to Whitney last week, Frank DePaola, administrator of the Department of Transportation’s Highway Division, said the Architectural Commission approved the project and materials in the summer of 2012. The work is part of the $250 million project to renovate the dilapidated Longfellow Bridge.
“MassDOT’s contractor was not mistaken in its use of cement concrete for the sidewalk ramps but was simply executing a design that had been reviewed and approved,” DePaola wrote.
Davey added that the ramps beside the John Jeffries House do not serve “a theoretical challenge in that area.”
“It’s next to Boston’s largest hospital,” he said. “It’s hardly inconceivable that handicap-accessible ramps in that area are critical.”
Whitney did not return calls for comment. But in an e-mail this week he insisted he sent the e-mail to Davey in a “personal capacity.”
“I understand that the [Department of Transportation] has now explained in a letter that their contractor’s work re[garding] the ramp was previously discussed with the [Architectural Commission] and all is in order with them,” he wrote to the Globe.
In a statement, Gilmore called the ramps “a unique situation” because some are only partially located in the historic district.
The civic association “has consistently supported increased accessibility in Beacon Hill that is in full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, while also preserving the historic district with historically appropriate materials,” she said.
Along Charles Circle this week, pedestrians using the new ramps said they had a hard time understanding how they could be controversial.
Pushing her 3-month-old son in a stroller, Tara Mazanec said the wide concrete ramps, set off from the brick sidewalk, make it easier to see where to cross in a complicated intersection.
“People are complaining about this?” asked Mazanec, 37, of Cambridge. “Don’t they have anything better to do?”