Disability Perspective: Uber-Ardent Historic Preservationists

by Bob Planthold on September 28, 2009

Civil Rights? We don’t need to deal with Civil Rights!

When Dante wrote “The Inferno” hundreds of years ago, he didn’t dream a new Hell was still to be created — by and for the uber-ardent preservationists. They religiously avoid dealing with accessibility. For people with disabilities, these thing-focussed advocates can be as much a blight on the political landscape as the right-wing radicals that still infest Sacramento and Washington. Recent examples of preservationists’ advocacy make it seem they’d rather hug an old wood beam and pile of bricks than a person with a disability.

The best example is the North Beach branch library. The avid preservationists claim they don’t need to deal with accessibility issues –that THOSE considerations get dealt with later, after any building is declared historic. There’s LOTS of reality gaps in that approach.

The North Beach branch is one of EIGHT SF branch libraries designed by one SF architectural firm; somehow, the preservationists’ report claims it is necessary to designate all EIGHT as “an example” of mid-century library architecture.

EIGHT is “an example”? That they’re mixing singular and plurals is a linguistic indication their analysis and thinking may not be as logical and as responsive to all applicable laws as should be the case.

Regarding the North Beach branch library, it’s best to describe access problems inside the building, since the preservationists report deals essentially with the EXTERIOR.

The building has multiple levels, none of which have any internal accessible connection, i.e., no lift nor elevator.

*That means that some people with disabilities are ARCHITECTURALLY prevented from working or volunteering there.

A possible job-bias litigation issue, Mr. City Attorney?

* The bathrooms are NOT accessible. Period. So, people with disabilities can’t work there AND can’t pee there.

Great sense of civil-rights history and inclusiveness shown by the preservationists. Could designating this building as historic then preserve an architectural bias that preserves the inequities and discrimination of the past?

The preservationists then say: Accessibility is not THEIR problem. Let’s examine that. What about the possibility of retrofitting into the interior some form of lifts or elevator? Remember, this building was designed and built in the mid-20th century. Asbestos was a common feature in some building materials during that timeframe. Asbestos abatement, if needed, has to be done carefully — meaning a slower pace, and at greater expense.

After that, any inclusion of an elevator or lift within the preserved facade of the building requires a determination as to whether the current structural support members are adequate, or need extra bracing. Again, more cost and more time. AND a reduction in usable interior space. This could result in any retrofit project that is too expensive for the time and budget allocated.

Yet, the preservationists would have gotten their way. A building could stay preserved but inaccessible for years, while appeals and funding drag on.

There’s another aspect of this battle that deserves mention: the demographics of the preservationists. Many of those who oppose preservation are active parents who want the land taken from Rec. & Park fin the ’60s for this library restored back to Rec. & Park — to provide more open space and recreation room for the area’s children. Whereas many of the uber-ardent preservationists do not have children. They’re not exactly kid-friendly.

Their dismissive responses about accessibility and coldness to the needs of children can be summed up as: as long as they have something THEY can enjoy, what does it matter the inconvenience and costs for EVERYBODY else? There are other examples of how some politically-aggressive people ignore access, though not always related to historic preservation. But, that’s grist for another column.

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