Ramp to make Romare Bearden Park more equally accessible

Mecklenburg County plans to replace a set of steps at Romare Bearden Park with a ramp to make the popular uptown park more equally accessible.

A civil rights complaint lodged last September by local disability rights advocates charged that the park’s lighted water fountain isn’t accessible from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for disabled visitors because its two entrances are steps. Those visitors, the advocates said, must use the park’s front entrance on Church Street or a side entrance on West Third Street to get to the fountain.

As a temporary fix to meet civil rights standards of the American Disabilities Act, County Manager Dena Diorio decided to install two benches last month to block openings to the two entrances – so no one can use them.

Yet all parts of the park remain open and equally accessible through other entrances.

Commissioner Bill James called the temporary fix “a legalistic bone-headed move” in an email Wednesday to commissioners.

“Does anyone really believe that the county would purposely, and with malice, design a facility to discriminate against” disabled people?” he wrote. “Barring the entrance to these two steps does not fix the ... problem. It just insured that everyone was equally unhappy with the result.”

The park meets the ADA’s accessibility guidelines, said Mark Hahn, the county’s asset and facility management director.

But the complaint focused on the law’s civil rights portion, Hahn said. It asserted that the two entrances from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard “prevent visitors with disabilities from accessing this particular program area in the same manner as the general public,” he said.

So, with approval from the disability rights advocates, Diorio decided to temporarily shut down the two entrances until the permanent fix is complete.

At Wednesday’s commission meeting, James proposed leaving one of the entrances open while the ramp is being built at the other. He said he agreed that the ramp needed to be installed, but was concerned that closing the two entrances will open the county to other litigation from disabilities advocates.

Hahn said both had to be closed to satisfy the civil rights portion of the law and prevent legal action against the county from the federal Justice Department.

“If only one entrance was blocked the complaint would have remained intact,” Hahn said.

Earlier Wednesday, Jim Garges, the county’s park and recreation director, said work on the ramp would begin soon. Like James, he didn’t agree with the temporary fix.

“Our first goal whenever we design and build a park is to make it as accessible as it can be for everybody,” he said. “But to say, ‘Until you get that corrected nobody can use it – that is a mistake.’ ”

Hahn said it will take eight to 10 weeks to build. He said county staff is also developing a process to train project managers, designers and consultants on how to consider the civil rights portion of the ADA law when new government facilities are designed. He said disabilities advocates will be consulted in designs in the future.

Commissioner Pat Cotham said the county “screwed up” when it didn’t provide equal access at the entrance. She said the county needs to be sensitive to all people when designing parks and buildings.

Board Chair Trevor Fuller and Vice Chair Dumont Clarke said the board shouldn’t “trivialize” the temporary fix while the ramp is built.

“For us to berate folks for a solution – that by the way is temporary – while we fix the flaw, really overstates the case,” Fuller said.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer