On Thursday night, Mayor Martin Walsh went before the residents of Beacon Hill to deliver his decision on the handicap accessible ramps that need to be installed in the sidewalks. He knew that his decision was not going to be well received, but he went to deliver the message himself rather than send his department chief. He deserves credit for that action.
However, his decision, while motivated by the highest of principles, is wrong.
Wrong not because people with disabilities should not have equal access, wrong because what he is doing is far less than what he expects homeowners in the neighborhood to do.
Living on Beacon Hill is a choice for many of us. We live here knowing that many of us have no parking, that we need to spend, in many cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra construction costs to make sure that real slate is used on our roofs not faux slate, so that people can see it sixty feet below. We live here knowing that our window muntins must be 3/16 of an inch wide, not 1/4 of an inch wide. We live here knowing that the color of the trim of the house must be approved and that the color of our door is not our own first choice. We live here even knowing that even the outside light fixture must be approved.
We are, after all, just temporary caretakers of these houses that have been here for hundreds of years, are to be passed on to future generations as architects like Charles Bulfinch designed them, and truly are some of Boston’s finest assets. These assets provide indirect benefits to all, as they are part of the fabric of the City that draws tourists and new residents from all over the world. The allure of gaslight fixtures and intact facades and streets like Acorn Street attract thousands of tourists each year who come up and down our streets.
The ultimate caretakers of these structures are the homeowners and the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission (BHAC).
On Thursday night, Walsh said that he would ignore the decision of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission and install modern ramps that are the least expensive choice. He noted that these ramps are used in other historic neighborhoods like Back Bay and the South End.
In talking with a friend who lives in the South End where, like on Beacon Hill, there are more brick sidewalks than concrete, he told me about his feeling on the ramps.
For some perspective, this friend is the kind of fellow who could care less about the decor of his house, which is his wife’s domain, but he really focuses on his mastering of the skill of frying his turkey in his outside cooker. However, when asked about the South End handicapped ramps, he solemnly said that the ramps have changed the feel of the neighborhood.
The citizens of Beacon Hill have been diligent in their part to retain the feel of their neighborhood. Residents who live on Beacon Hill are as passionate about their neighborhood as are residents in Jeffries Point in East Boston or Monument Square in Charlestown or Savin Hill in Dorchester.
Like many Bostonians in neighborhoods like Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, or West Roxbury, our homes represent our largest single asset.
At many meetings of the BHAC, the commissioners toil on minute details and say no to satellite dishes that are in public view. When the street signal boxes on Charles Street had to be changed, the commissioners were steadfast in their resolve to reach a decision that was reasonable both for the City seeking a box under five feet in height yet able to hold all necessary electronics and for the residents who wanted no electrical boxes or updated signal lights. With diligence and holding the City accountable, the BHAC commissioners found the right solution that worked and blended into the neighborhood.
After Thursday night’s meeting, there are two key takeaways.
First, the decision on the ramps by Walsh seems to lack reasonableness on his part. His decision to ignore the appointed commissioners on the BHAC is wrong.
Secondly, this decision seems to run counter to a working democracy. As society continues to evolve, there is always the higher need to help those less fortunate — either socially or physical impaired. As reasonable citizens in that society, in this case today, we recognize the need to help those with physical disabilities and make their journey through life easier. A democracy works because everyone – those governing and those to be governed – need to be reasonable.
For more than 60 years, homeowners in Beacon Hill have been reasonable in adhering to the guidelines on what they can do to their homes and have done this.
After the meeting on Thursday night, Walsh is now saying, “do as I say, not as I do.” He seems content to do the construction incorrectly because it will cost less than doing it correctly.
Is this tact reasonable and is this a harbinger of what what we can expect of our elected officials?
Stephen Quigley is President of the Independent Newspaper Group that owns 13 newspapers including neighborhoods in Boston that include Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, North End , Charlestown, East Boston, Beacon Hill and Back Bay.