5 public garages in need of fixes

Survey shows city sites fail to comply with disability law

April 27, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore will spend thousands to renovate five popular city garages that do not comply with federal disability laws, prompting questions about why the buildings were not properly designed in the first place, city officials said yesterday.

The garages, including two built in the past decade, require new pedestrian doors, larger parking spaces for the disabled and more curb cuts to meet requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result, the city will pay for upgrades not anticipated in the budget.

Officials learned of the deficiencies after the U.S. Department of Justice performed a survey of city garages and sent the results to the city late last year. Many of the renovations have been completed, but more complicated structural work remains.

"We want to set the example of ADA compliance in terms of parking facilities," said Peter Little, executive director of the city's parking authority, which was created years after the garages were built.

More than $830,000 was approved by the city's Board of Estimates for the garages, but officials said only about 5 percent of that money is needed to address changes for the disabled. The rest will be used for increased payroll and insurance costs as well as other operating expenses, Little said.

Officials played down the changes needed for the disabled, arguing that City Hall could have requested a waiver for many of the requirements but that the administration instead insisted on making its garages accessible.

In its report, the Justice Department noted problems such as elevator buttons that were placed too high for some to reach and handrails that were missing from adjacent ramps, Little said. Some issues were less significant, such as disabled parking signs that used only symbols -- not symbols and words, as required by law -- to delineate reserved parking.

In an e-mail, a Justice Department spokeswoman said the results of the survey were confidential and that she could not comment on the matter.

Advocates for the disabled say ADA guidelines are important to guarantee that anyone can make his or her way through public facilities. Janice Frey-Angel, chief executive officer of the League for People with Disabilities, said such regulations will become more relevant as the population ages.

"It's about access," she said. "It's about making sure that everybody has access to the world."

Frey-Angel said she has not received an inordinate number of complaints about the city's garages.

Access for the disabled became an issue for the city last year when the Parks Department proposed changes to the park around Mount Vernon's Washington Monument, such as adding ramps where stairs now exist. Preservationists, wary of changes to the historic site, asked to be included in the project's planning.

Five parking facilities were named in the federal report, according to Board of Estimates documents, including the 399-space Little Italy garage on South Central Avenue and the 510-space Baltimore Street Garage on Guilford Avenue. The city has 16 parking garages in all.

Some were built before the ADA regulations went into effect, but others were constructed more recently. The Little Italy garage, for example, was completed in 1999, Little said, and its design was approved by the city's planning department at the time.

The city's planning officials, many of whom were not at City Hall when the garages were built, review designs to ensure that they adhere to federal guidelines, said Gary Cole, division chief of land use and urban design.

But Councilman Robert W. Curran, who introduced legislation this week in the City Council that would require any project receiving city money to follow the ADA, said the city should include members of its Commission on Disabilities when it approves new buildings.

"The disability commission should be part of the process," Curran said. "It's the right thing to do, and it's not rocket science. We're all citizens of the city."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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