Downtown Difficult For Disabled

September 15, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Downtown Development Authority members took what amounts to a pictorial walk-through of the district they oversee last week, and the virtual trip left them with a very different impression of downtown.

"If it's this bad downtown, it could be 10 times worse in the rest of the city," said Paul Mayhue, DDA vice chairman and a KentCounty commissioner whose district is in the city.

Mayhue's reaction came after members heard a disheartening report from the Disabilities Advocates of Kent County about the barriers that physically impaired people face on a daily basis when they try to make their way through a rejuvenated Central Business District.

"There are a number of issues in the DDA district," said David Bulkowski, DAKC executive director.

Those issues aren't issues for most. But for the blind or those confined to wheelchairs, the issues are really obstacles that place them in a precarious situation and put their safety at risk.

"We found a lot of problems, and it's not uncommon," said Barb Stoops, a volunteer with Disabilities Advocates who is also an attorney, an engineer and confined to a wheelchair.

Stoops was on hand to present the results of an accessibility audit the DDA agreed to and helped fund a year ago, and her issue list was lengthy. She said rolled curbs, diagonally cut curbs, curbs containing bricks, angled crosswalks, unmarked barriers, alleys and driveways that aren't maintained, railroad crossings without ground guards, bus stops without pads, and handicapped parking spaces without access aisles all turned up in the audit, and all can become barriers for the physically challenged.

Probably the most dangerous example Stoops presented was a woman whose wheelchair's front wheels became caught between a railroad tie and the sidewalk while she was trying to cross the tracks. Stoops said having ground guards at the crossing would have let the woman easily roll her chair over the tracks.

"But if you want barriers, walk

Campau Avenue
," said Stoops of the district's most challenging street for those with physical disabilities.

Stoops showed a photo of the street that made Campau a veritable obstacle course for those with poor vision. Light and utility poles, a fire hydrant and uneven concrete slabs were seemingly placed on the street at random and formed a nearly impenetrable sidewalk maze for someone being led by a leader dog.

"I think we were under the illusion that we had done a good job," said Mayor George Heartwell, also a DDA member.

When Heartwell was a city commissioner, he said the commission had hoped to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act nine years after it went into effect in 1992. But 14 years later, the mayor said that hasn't happened, even with all the reconstruction the district has gone through over the past decade.

"Some of these changes were engineered wrong," said Heartwell. "The city commission needs to see this."

DDA Chairwoman Kayem Dunn said the Downtown Alliance would also get a copy of the audit and be asked to include it in its streetscape work. DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler, a former city planner, said he would share the report's findings with city planners and engineers, and create a repair list that he would regularly share with the DDA.

Fowler reminded everyone that

Campau Avenue
will be reconstructed next summer, part of the work that is being done in conjunction with the JW Marriott Hotel that Alticor Inc. is building at Pearl and Campau, and access on the sidewalk can be improved then.

"We can't do it all at once, so we will have to manage it on an ongoing basis," said Fowler.

The audit cost about $20,000 to conduct and the DDA allocated $12,000 last September to it.

"Thanks to your investment, we're going to be leveraging this throughout the community," said Bulkowski.

And Stoops didn't want the audit to leave board members too depressed, so she told them that there were other areas in the city in much worse condition than theirs.

"Downtown is pretty good," said Stoops. "There are [curb] ramps in Eastown I won't even attempt to use."    

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