Curb Cuts Cut

Recent Stillwater construction projects have ignored ADA

Two recent major building projects by the city of Stillwater have either violated or initially ignored the Americans with Disabilities Act. In both the Lift Bridge renovation and the Washington Park reconstruction, curb cuts (or legal curb cuts) were not included in certain areas. These apparent violations have not resulted in fines.

The city of Stillwater, Minnesota, twenty miles east of the Twin Cities, is typical of many cities with building codes derived from the ADA, cities with an implied ongoing commitment to full accessibility. But many of Stillwater’s curb cuts and sidewalks were built before the ADA came into effect and are difficult for wheelchair-users to use. Until recently, most wheelchair-users had to travel in the streets or depend on paratransit for local trips. The city’s ongoing project of adding or replacing curb cuts, along with the new paved “trail” to a major shopping center, have vastly improved local accessibility.

Nevertheless, the people in charge of two recent major projects chose to ignore ADA requirements for accessible curb cuts. The first, the $5-million renovation of the Stillwater Lift Bridge over the St. Croix River, originally had plans to upgrade the bridge’s pedestrian walkway without replacing its old, stepped curb cut to the street.

When the state agency overseeing the project was reminded of the ADA requirement, they agreed (after some resistance) to replace the old curb cut. The new one, however, does not meet legal requirements; it has a slope of 1-in-7 (a 7-inch rise in a 50-inch run), nearly twice as steep as the ADA’s minimum requirement of 1-in-12. What’s worse, the 13 feet of the sidewalk beyond the curb cut was replaced at the same time, so there was plenty of room for a properly-sloped ramp.

The second project is the reconstruction of Washington Square Park. The new park includes a parking lot with one marked, accessible parking space with a curb cut. The park also features a serpentine brick walkway through the park which allows wheelchair access to every gazebo and pavilion and bench.

Unfortunately, the new park also includes an apparent ADA violation. On the side of the park where the new parking lot is, there’s a brand-new city sidewalk. Unfortunately, the last stretch of this sidewalk simply dead-ends at a ridge of grass at the neighboring private property, such that a pedestrian using a wheelchair (or a parent pushing a stroller) must either struggle across the ridge of grass or backtrack to the curb cut in the parking lot. This seems to be a violation of the ADA, which requires sidewalks to be ramped at each end and at all intersections.

Instead of building in the curb cut while the park was still under construction, as requested, the city chose to put up a small sign near the sidewalk’s dead end, saying, “NO ACCESSIBLE RAMP AHEAD—DEAD END SIDE-WALK IN 40 FEET.” The sign sums up the situation perfectly; the sidewalk exists but wheelchair users are not welcome to use it—much like other signs of segregation in civil-rights history. Both the dead-end sidewalk and its sign are an embarrassment; the city should never have allowed this dead-end to happen in the first place.

Ken Moses, though retired, has been an active advocate for disability-rights matters for decades, and was the recipient of the city of Stillwater’s 2006 Human Rights Award for his achievements. He’s also an audio describers for Twin Cities theatergoers.

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