Wheelchair access requirements at the new City Hall plaza and Huntington Park below it were eased by Spokane building officials because of terrain impediments, prompting mixed reactions within the region’s disability community.
Frustration spread quickly on social media following the May 2 dedication, but some disability advocates have since acknowledged that site designers did the best they could with the engineering challenges posed.
“It’s hurtful to people with disabilities to be excluded, but I think what we do is look at the overall situation,” said Greg Falk, executive director at The Arc of Spokane, who said he’s been contacted by some people who are disappointed over the design. “What I ask myself is, ‘Was there an effort to provide reasonable accommodation?’ And, to me, it sounds like that effort was made.”
The plaza, which features sweeping views of Spokane Falls and the Monroe Street Bridge, was considered too steep and small to include wheelchair access to the seating and gathering areas. The city allowed site developer Avista Corp. to instead provide a wheelchair ramp at street level along the south side to a dedicated viewing outlook and an elevated platform where those in wheelchairs can watch and participate in staged plaza events.
The city also waived wheelchair access to the parkland below the falls because the drop-off is so steep it would require ramps at least a half-mile long in order to comply with the requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Four other wheelchair-accessible viewing sites are available on both sides of the river, and there’s a steep access road off of Spokane Falls Boulevard that some use as wheelchair and stroller access even though it isn’t ADA-compliant.
Federal regulators also signed off on the site design, city spokesman Brian Coddington said.
Avista said it met with neighborhood groups and others during the design phase and openly discussed the difficulty in providing wheelchair access in such steep terrain.
“In a development like this, you are challenged by the space and the slope,” said Speed Fitzhugh, the project manager for Avista. “So, we looked at alternatives.
“The best views of all were right along City Hall and that’s where we put the (wheelchair) access.”
Had an ADA-compliant wheelchair ramp been built to the stage level, it would have left little room for anything else at the plaza, Fitzhugh said. In addition to the platforms, the plaza includes an ADA-compliant drinking fountain, interpretive signs and additional disability parking.
Access, overall, was a concern because of the terrain.
“Huntington Park is nearly 100 feet below Post Street and may be considered challenging to folks who are not physically fit,” Avista spokeswoman Jessie Wuerst said. “Visitors must decide how far to venture based on their own physical abilities.”
Avista spent $2 million developing the plaza as a gift to the city. Wuerst said no money from utility rates or city tax dollars was used in the plaza development. Cost of the renovations to Huntington Park, which Avista has long owned but makes publicly accessible, is difficult to determine because it’s part of an overall dam relicensing effort under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, she said.