Hotel access poses unique issues

Plans to convert a Summit Avenue mansion into a 10-unit boutique hotel have hit a bump, as the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) seeks more information. The project is expected to return to the commission January. The main issue of debate appears to be how wheelchair users access the building, either through a front door ramp or through back entrances.

On a 10-2 vote November 20 the HPC laid over action on developer John Rupp’s building permits needed for 344 Summit Ave. Rupp is converting the Watson Davidson House into a luxury hotel. The house, which was built and expanded from 1915-1921, is considered a pivotal structure in the Historic Hill District. It was used for many years as the main building for the College of Visual Arts. The college closed in summer 2013.

344 Summit AvenueThe developer wants to provide access to the building for people with disabilities, by adding an elevated ramp sidewalk to the front door. Rupp also wants to make grade changes to the property’s front yard to alleviate longstanding drainage problems that have damaged the building’s basement level. He is concerned that the layover means he cannot pull any building permits for the property for at least few more weeks. The building needs electrical and plumbing work on top of the needed renovations for hotel use.

The building permit would also allow widening of the front sidewalk that connects with the driveway with the central entry sidewalk, to allow space for vehicles to turn around.

HPC staff asked that the application be laid over for further review and to gather more information. One request is for a written evaluation by a preservation architect, showing that all possible routes for access have been explored. The house has doors on three sides but those are either narrow or have obstacles such as steps or lack of space to turn a wheelchair around.

Rupp would like to use the front door, with a low ramp along the front of the building. He said “the ramp, which would require removing part of a stone front door landing wall, would not be obtrusive. A ramp could also be a convenience for guests pulling wheeled suitcases in and out of the hotel.”

“If I can, I would like people in wheelchairs to be able to use the front door,” said Rupp. He’d either like to modify the front entrance or use temporary ramps. The hotel will have one accessible unit, on the main floor. Some HPC commissioners agreed with Rupp. Two commissioners, David Wagner and William Lightner, voted against laying over the building permit. Both said that the front door should be used for access.

“People with disabilities shouldn’t be sent to a rear door,” Wagner said, “People should be able to enter the building in a dignified manner.” He and Lightner said the only reason they could see for a delay is if a temporary ramp could be explored.

The other commissioners and HPC staff said more information is needed and that use of other doors should be explored.

Historic buildings are regulated by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which provides guidance for states and local communities on access issues. In the preservation brief, “Making Historic Properties Accessible,” it is pointed out that modifications to improve accessibility should generally have using the front or main door as a priority. One issue that has to be weighed is how modifications would impact a historic property.

Rupp has been working with city officials for several months on his plans. The St. Paul Planning Commission in September approved a conditional use permit for the project. Summit Avenue Residential Preservation Association (SARPA) appealed that decision to the City Council, which upheld the Planning Commission decision. That appeal stopped the clock on any city staff work on building permits until it could be resolved by the City Council.

SARPA and two neighbors submitted letters opposing the permit request. SARPA pointed out that when Rupp sought the conditional use permit, and said there would not be exterior alterations. Neighbor Anita Robeson, who has worked on disability access issues, said the solution proposed for the front door is a good one and should be allowed.