The Battle of Beacon Hill

by Callie Ahlgrim

Photography by Callie Ahlgrim

The two-year-old battle to make Beacon Hill accessible for handicapped people may just boil down to one simple demand: the use of upscale materials.

The image-conscious Beacon Hill residents will tolerate the assembly of handicapped-accessible sidewalks—required under federal law—if the city agrees to switch the plastic and concrete plans for iron or granite, according to the president of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, Patricia Tully.

Residents and the city have been sparring over the city’s unilateral decision to affect change in the historic neighborhood. The city began work in 2014, overriding a decision by the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission that denied permission for construction, court documents show.

Upon delivering the negative decision, the BHAC requested that the city provide information about the proposed materials, but didn’t receive anything in return. The lawsuit, filed by the BHCA, specifically cites the city’s decision to use “historically inappropriate materials and designs” without BHAC permission.

“On the main streets, where the city wants to install cut-outs and ramps, we’re all for that. We just want to keep the materials within the historical context of the neighborhood,” said Tully.

“In other words, we really don’t want yellow plastic or concrete. We’d rather something like granite or iron,” Tully said. “I’ve seen developments ten minutes outside Boston that have iron plates for accessible ramps. That’s something that I’m sure is expensive at the beginning, but it will last forever.”

Boston’s Sidewalk Reconstruction Policy, enacted in 2014, states that all pedestrian ramps must be comprised of concrete and a yellow tactile warning strip. City officials have already switched the proposed ramp color to a muted shade of red, but the BHCA would prefer grey, according to court documents.

Disability advocate John Kelly, a wheelchair user, believes that bright colors are important so that visually impaired people can easily see the warning strips. He also considers granite and iron to be expensive, impractical materials.

“These associations, they’re so afraid of their property value, they sue to prevent things that they don’t like personally,” Kelly said. “When the tactile strips are installed, Beacon Hill will still be Beacon Hill."

Arthur Kreiger, the Boston attorney representing the plaintiffs, said that the city has been “cooperative,” but that the two parties have not been able to reach a final compromise.

“We’ve talked about whether there are other ways to resolve the case and none of that has happened yet, so we are proceeding with the litigation,” Kreiger said.

The city in September asked a state judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that further restrictions and litigation would prevent the city from rectifying “a current unsafe and dangerous condition in Beacon Hill,” according to court documents.

Last year, a Suffolk Superior Court judge ordered the city to suspend construction in Beacon Hill until the project could be reviewed by the state. Before the injunction, only four ramps had been installed out of the proposed 250.

“The ongoing injunction because of the lawsuit has only allowed the city to do work on the sidewalks when it’s an emergency situation, like how missing bricks are a tripping hazard,” said Tully. “This is not that.”

Tully said that she is not aware of any reported issues from handicapped residents or visitors to Beacon Hill, either before or after the lawsuit was filed.

“I think when a whole group of people cannot use the sidewalks at all, that’s discrimination. I would call that an emergency,” Kelly said. “Having people risking their lives in the street—that’s an emergency.”

“Nobody’s gotten killed that I know of, because of the lack of ramps, but the sidewalks supposedly belong to the people of the city, not the BHCA,” Kelly said.

The lawsuit singles out the city’s Inspectional Services Department and its commissioner, William Christopher—who had written a letter claiming authority to overrule the Architectural Commission if he deemed it a matter of public safety.

“The Commissioner of the Inspectional Services Department’s use of the public safety exception is unlawful, an abuse of discretion and a sham,” claimed the BHCA in court documents.

Christopher denied abusing his authority, court records show. He declined a request for comment.

In his March deposition, Christopher also claimed that the city’s Disability Commissioner, Kristen McCosh, said that the work should be completed as soon as possible for safety reasons.

McCosh declined a request for comment. A spokesperson for Walsh said in an emailed statement: “The City is currently pursuing a course of action that will allow it to bring pedestrian ramps on Beacon Hill into compliance with state and federal law for the benefit of residents who are disabled, and all residents and visitors alike.”

Without bringing the sidewalks into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the city lacks federal funding for improving Boston’s infrastructure.

During his final term, Mayor Thomas Menino declared that the city would not construct any new brick sidewalks, but that existing brick sidewalks would remain unpaved. Because of this, advocates agreed to look at designating “Accessible Routes” in Beacon Hill, instead of insisting on having full sidewalk compliance, according to Kelly.

While Kelly supports the initiative to build the ramps, he doesn’t think they will actually enable him to access the neighborhood.

“Installing ramps without a plan to redo the sidewalk is kind of like building an entrance to a superhighway that doesn’t exist,” Kelly said. “The sidewalks remain unbearably bumpy. Unless they’re paired with a concrete plan to repair the sidewalks, it’s much ado about very little.”

Although Tully said the city is often replacing bricks and repairing uneven landscapes in Beacon Hill, the sidewalks have largely been the same since 1976, according to court documents.

In fact, the BHCA was formed in 1922 in order to protest the city’s decision to pave the brick sidewalks. Many still believe that the sidewalks are integral to the character of the neighborhood, which was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

“We definitely want to make this neighborhood as accessible as possible within what’s possible,” said Tully. “The issue was never about accessibility, it is about maintaining the historical integrity.”

While neither the BHCA nor the BHAC are a legal governing body, Boston’s Supreme Judicial Court has confirmed the Architectural Commission’s broad authority to preserve Beacon Hill in the past. In 1996, the court ruled in favor of the commission when it sued the Boston Globe, in order to ban newspaper racks on the sidewalks.

“The BHAC has their own workflow and agenda, but our responsibilities have a lot of overlap,” Tully said.

The BHCA is actually responsible for selecting one of the BHAC’s five members. Both organizations hold monthly meetings to hear—and approve or deny—proposals for neighborhood alterations. This includes any proposal for perceptible change, from adding a roof deck to painting a front door.

“We have to make a decision based upon if we feel that there’s a real need to make that change,” Tully said. “If it’s something visible from public way, it’s very difficult to pass it through because we don’t want to change the fabric of the neighborhood.”

A hearing will be held in February to determine whether the BHCA’s case against the city should be dismissed, settled, or go to trial. The deliberation will likely take a number of months, according to Kreiger.

In 2006, the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay lost a similar state case against the MBTA, filed in protest of the decision to update Copley Square Station with two elevators. Now, Beacon Hill is the only area of the city that does not comply with federal disability laws.