Walsh to Ignore BHAC on Sidewalk Ramps: Mayor Walsh’s First Big Mistake

Save the bricks. That was the rallying cry last Thursday for Beacon Hill residents. When neighbors heard the city was going to tear up bricks and install concrete ramps at the neighborhood’s intersections they were, like their predecessors in 1947, willing to sit down on the bricks to keep the city from ripping them out. Mayor Walsh said the construction would take place in the next two weeks.

What the mayor hasn’t learned is that this matter is barely about bricks. Instead it is about a dictatorial public works department that decided to destroy a city’s historic fabric with no consultation with a neighborhood. It is about a mayor who heard only one side of a story.

Walsh said, “This has been going on for two and a half years.”

You’d think if it had gone on for that long, the plan the city’s public works department had for installing ramps would be a wonderful one that enhanced our city.

Instead it is cheap, quick and dirty. There is no evidence that city officials looked at the solutions other cities, especially those with historic neighborhoods, have employed. Neighborhood engineers and architects think the city’s cost estimates are phony. City officials have shut out neighborhood leaders at every stage of the planning, if we could elevate what the city has done to call it “planning.”

Everyone agrees that Beacon Hill should be accessible to everyone, no matter what their abilities are. And it’s a challenge. First of all, Beacon Hill is a hill. Sidewalks are so narrow that no one can get by. Granite steps to buildings protrude onto narrow sidewalks along many streets. The bricks laid in the 1970s were badly installed and have not been maintained. Furthermore, decades of letting the car take precedence over everything else has sacrificed human comfort. Everyone walks in the street. The whole thing is a mess.

With such problems, you’d think the city would bring in experts with long experience in making places accessible. There is no evidence they did anything of the kind.

You’d also think that if two and a half years had gone by, the city would be meeting constantly with neighborhood leaders to find a solution that enhanced the city, not damaged it.

The city of Cambridge provides a good example of how such a process would unfold. Cambridge city officials met twice a month over two years with Cambridge residents, disabilities advocates, engineers, architects and other constituencies, reported a Cambridge resident who sat on the committee charged with solving the problem. Over that period of time, they came up with solutions—some were different from others, depending on the location—on which everyone basically agreed.

Boston’s public works department, however, went about it in a different way. They held only one meeting for the whole city where they told everyone what they planned to do, with no input from residents or experts. Then they went before the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission a year and a half ago. That body told them to return with a better plan. Last November, they again unsuccessfully presented essentially the same improvised plan to the surprise and horror of the neighborhood, then ignored and rebuffed the efforts of neighborhood leaders to helped craft a solution. They made the whole thing an “us versus them” matter, with no sense of collegiality or common purpose. Reportedly, some city officials claimed that Beacon Hill had installed bricks expressly to keep disabled persons out. That someone would believe that or even report it shows how far class warfare still runs this city, not to mention a poor understanding of history.

Make no mistake: there are creative, cost-effective, appropriate ways to solve the problem of making Beacon Hill accessible. Other places with a lot less brainpower have accomplished such feats.

Also make no mistake: Beacon Hill wants to solve this problem, and neighborhood leaders are willing to spend a great deal of time making it happen. So far, however, they have been scorned.

Boston leaders are always worried—is this city really world-class or not? City agencies that operate on a level of cheap, uninspired, unvetted solutions make it clear that Boston has a long way to go before it can be “world-class.”

It’s not just Beacon Hill. All neighborhoods are in jeopardy if city agencies can dictate uninspired solutions without neighbors’ input.

And it was surprising that Mayor Walsh supported such a plan, without investigating further what has gone on, especially since the “plan” was hatched not under his administration, but the previous one. Walsh has been a boy wonder, a fresh burst of energy, a problem-tackler. He seemed to be a person who valued cooperation and win-win solutions. His insistence that a bad plan go forward seemed out of character.

All I know is that good leaders corral everyone to find good solutions. Beacon Hill residents want to be part of the solution. So far though the city has just instigated fights, and Mayor Walsh has now aided and abetted that bad behavior.

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