'Advocates, landlord spar over access'

Last modified: 12/19/2010 12:00:00 AM
Renovations to the facade of Phenix Hall have restored the downtown landmark's historical look. But does the work also mean it's time for the 19th-century building to be held to modern standards of accessibility for people with disabilities?

That's the question as Mark Ciborowski, whose family owns the building at 36-42 N. Main St., squares off with the Disabilities Rights Center, a Concord-based group that advocates for people with disabilities.

Ciborowski says the building, as a historic structure, is exempt from a requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide entrance ramps. He described the work this summer and fall as "largely cosmetic in nature with some repairs," replacing the steps and doors and removing a metal facade attached to the front around 1960.

Besides, Ciborowski said, putting in ramps isn't technically feasible and would detract from the building's historic character.

But James Fox, a staff attorney with the center, said the renovation work was extensive enough to trigger the ADA's requirement for a ramp.

"When they altered the front of the building, they changed the steps and the doors, and that meant, to the maximum extent possible, they were supposed to put a ramp in. And they didn't," he said.

The two sides are still talking. But Fox said last week that the center could file a lawsuit in federal court if it's not satisfied.

"If we still disagree about the accessibility issue, that's how things get resolved," Fox said.

This year's renovation involved work to the fronts of The Works Bakery Cafe, the League of NH Craftsmen and a vacant storefront on the ground floor of Phenix Hall, which opened in 1895 after the original Phenix Hall, built in 1855, burned down.

Fox said the construction constituted a significant change to the building, which means "you're supposed to bring it up to date" with the ADA accessibility guidelines.

"The building was, in our opinion, altered. That's the trigger under the ADA," Fox said.

That means a 14-foot-long ramp should be installed at each door, since the two steps up create a 14-inch jump from the street level. A steeper ramp is also an option, Fox said.

Ciborowski said a ramp of the required length would be impractical, in addition to being legally unnecessary. Fox disagreed, but he said he is still investigating the issue.

Ciborowski said he does plan to make the upper floors and basement of Phenix Hall accessible by lowering the lobby floor and elevator opening by 14 inches and removing the steps into the lobby, making the floor level with the sidewalk. That work may have to wait until the spring due to weather, he said.

Ciborowski, a former chairman of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, is a prominent downtown landlord who has redeveloped a number of properties, including the Barley House, at 132 N. Main St.

He said accessibility is a priority for him, and in past downtown projects he's done everything possible to improve access to buildings. But in this case, he said, he studied the building and decided a ramp wasn't required or feasible.

And he expressed frustration that accessibility concerns weren't raised when the Phenix Hall project was going through the city's review process, instead of "after the fact, when I have a legal, legitimate permit and I'm two-thirds done with my work and they want me to start ripping out all my work. . . . I think it could have been handled better," he said.

Fox said the center sent a letter to Ciborowski around May but never heard back, and didn't realize until the work was under way how extensive it would be.

The project received a building permit from the city, said code administrator Michael Santa. But, he said, the city enforces the requirements of the International Building Code, which is "similar to ADA requirements" but not exactly the same.

The city isn't responsible for enforcing the ADA, he said, and he said he didn't want to speak about any specific project.

"It's challenging in existing buildings," Santa said. "It's pretty easy to get compliance in new construction, but when you get into existing buildings, it gets much more challenging."

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.)

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