Bank's disabled access adequate, judge rules

Altering city skyscraper `aesthetic destruction'

March 26, 2002|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

In a case pitting architectural aesthetics against handicapped accessibility, a federal judge has ruled that Bank of America is not legally required to add a wheelchair ramp or make other structural changes to one of Baltimore's most prominent buildings.

Judge Marvin J. Garbis said that costly renovations needed to provide better accommodations for handicapped people at the 1929 art deco skyscraper at 10 Light St. would amount to "aesthetic destruction." He ruled that the historic building, while lacking in handicapped accessibility options, meets Americans with Disabilities Act minimum requirements.

"The court finds that the bank provides disabled customers with reasonable alternative service accommodations," Garbis wrote in a 31-page opinion, based partly on the judge's experience touring the bank in a wheelchair. He visited the 34-story building in August and, wanting to understand the handicapped perspective, navigated the corridors in a borrowed mechanized chair.

Jacqueline A. Speciner, the wheelchair user who brought the federal lawsuit, had argued that the bank should make improvements to its main entrance on Light Street and add a wheelchair ramp to the building's second entrance on Baltimore Street. Also named as a plaintiff in the suit was Making Choices for Independent Living Inc., a Baltimore advocacy group for the disabled.

Garbis said in his opinion that the building, one of the most prominent in the Baltimore skyline, "does everything reasonable and more" to accommodate disabled persons. But because of "problems inherent" with making structural changes to a historic building, there is only so much the bank can do, Garbis wrote.

"The bank has removed all barriers to accessibility to the extent readily achievable," Garbis wrote. "Regretfully, there is no feasible way to provide an unassisted accessible path from the Light Street lobby to the banking hall. To accomplish such a result would require enormous expenditures and aesthetic destruction."

Customers using wheelchairs have access to the banking level, but must follow a rather "tortuous assisted path," Garbis said.

They must ask a guard for help, then navigate narrow passageways in use by employees "to reach an ancient, albeit well-maintained, manual elevator" to get to the mezzanine level, Garbis wrote.

Simon K. Walton, a Baltimore attorney representing MCIL, said an appeal is being considered.

"We're very disappointed that the result of this ruling is that Miss Speciner and people like her cannot get into the bank," Walton said. "The only way to get into the bank is through a labyrinthian route. There is no reasonable way. There never was, and there still isn't."

An attorney for Bank of America referred questions yesterday to bank officials, who didn't respond to a request for comment.

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