Pasadena Delays Action on Ramps for Disabled : Access Seen as the Real Handicap

Times Staff Writer

Marlene Nichols would like to attend more city government meetings. But she visits City Hall only twice a month, partly because she says getting into the building is a demoralizing experience.

Like other residents who use wheelchairs or cannot climb stairs, Nichols has to go down a ramp to a corner door into the basement of City Hall, then travel past four garbage dumpsters to reach the main elevator.

"I don't like coming through the basement," said Nichols, who has been in a wheelchair since she suffered a spinal cord injury in 1950. "It sends a message: 'We know you're there, but stay out of sight.' "

Because of such concerns, the city has been working for the past two years to provide better access for the disabled. In April, a number of groups working on the $5-million restoration of City Hall approved a plan to install a pair of ramps at the Euclid Avenue entrance at a cost of $250,000.

'Issue of Civil Rights'

But after an hourlong debate Monday over where to locate access for the handicapped, and which is the front entrance to the historic building, the Board of Directors postponed action.

"To me it is a clear issue of civil rights," said Director Rick Cole, who favors placing access for the handicapped on the side of the building facing Garfield Avenue. "I think it's time we stopped bringing people in through the back door."

Cole and Director Jess Hughston argued that the City Hall's address is 100 N. Garfield Ave., and disabled residents should be able to enter at what is considered by many to be the front of the building.

"My bottom line is the symbolism of it all," Hughston said. "I believe that it's a symbolic gesture on our part to welcome the handicapped in on that side of City Hall."

The board asked the Architectural Resources Group of San Francisco, which is involved in the restoration project and designed the Euclid Avenue entrance, to submit preliminary designs and cost estimates for an entrance for the handicapped on Garfield.

Cole said earlier proposals for a $50,000 lift or a ramp on Garfield had been rejected by the City Hall Preservation Committee, made up of members of Pasadena Heritage, the Cultural Heritage Commission and the Design Review Committee. He said the panels that rejected the Garfield plan because of aesthetics put "architectural purism above the rights of the disabled."

"Preservation is preserving the soul as well as the body of the building. Architecture is more than beauty, it's utility," Cole said.

"If we're willing to spend $250,000 to do it on Euclid then we ought to be able to spend another $50,000 to put another entrance on Garfield," said Director William Paparian.

The entrance on Euclid would be more costly because it would require two long ramps, more curb cuts and extensive landscaping changes.

Architects and preservationists contend that the proposed ramps off Euclid Avenue would not only provide access but would also preserve the architectural integrity of the 60-year-old building, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Buildings.

Although many of the handicapped would prefer to come in through the front of the building, their major concern is getting in some way other than through the basement.

"Going in with the trash doesn't seem exactly appropriate," said Susan Gross, president of the West San Gabriel Valley branch of the California Assn. of the Physically Handicapped.

Practical Reasons Cited

"We would like to think good about ourselves," said Nichols. "We always are put in the basement or the back."

The handicapped also cite practical reasons for moving access out of the basement.

Martha Griswold, director of Living Independently in the Valley, a disability resource center that serves West San Gabriel Valley residents, said she has waited as long as an hour for someone to unlock the basement door for a weekend meeting. And when meetings last longer than scheduled, she has had to wait while employees searched for a key to let her out the basement door, which is locked at regular hours.

'If the world was falling down around you or if there was a fire, there would be no way to get out without getting the key," she said.

Chuck Havard, a member of the Pasadena Disability Issues group, was a consultant to the City Hall Preservation Committee. Havard, who has used a wheelchair since 1962, said putting the entrance on Euclid was a good compromise for a difficult situation.

Havard said the plan is "in good taste. It doesn't look ugly and it doesn't look like it's just for people in wheelchairs."

Cathleen Malmstrom, an architect with Architectural Resources Group, said she favors the Euclid entrance because everyone could use the walkways and the handicapped would not be isolated.

'Garfield Is Front Door'

"We never did feel that Euclid is the front door. Garfield is the front door," she said. "But we felt that our scheme, our design, was giving the Euclid side a greater importance, a more finished appearance, so it would not have the stigma of being a back door."

Malmstrom said she hesitated to alter the Garfield entrance because any design "would be destructive to the historic character" of the Spanish-style structure organized around a central garden with arcades.

"The (Euclid entrance) is gracious, easily maintained and used by all," said Claire Bogaard, executive director of Pasadena Heritage and a member of the preservation committee.

"I have never considered the Euclid side as the back door," she said. "I have considered it another entrance to City Hall."

Director Kathryn Nack said she supports any plan that would get the handicapped out of the basement, and added that some wheelchair-bound people she had talked to supported the Euclid plan.

"The ones that I talked with thought that it was a wonderful plan," she said. "None of them mentioned back door or front door."

Nack said the plans for the ramps on Euclid would not be as obtrusive as a ramp or lift off Garfield.

"I can't believe that the people who I know who are in wheelchairs would want to be accused of creating a less than beautiful entrance to City Hall," she said.

"I personally see either entrance as being accessible," Nack said. "It should have been started long ago."

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