New 'ramp' at downtown Ann Arbor library raises concerns with disability advocates
When Allen Hizer first saw the new entryway at the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown branch, he says he couldn’t believe his eyes.
The Ann Arbor resident, who has been a professional caregiver for people with disabilities for years, said he was shocked to see the new “ramp” leading up to a wide-open concrete platform had no handrails or barriers to keep people from walking or wheeling off the edges.
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
A yellow line is the only physical marker warning people exiting the library of the platform’s drop-off.
“You know they moved the Washtenaw Library for the Blind here,” Hizer said. “Well, how does a blind person see a yellow painted edge?”
Hizer is one of about 20 people who have expressed concerns about the new entrance over the past month to the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living. I learned of the concerns during a conversation with Carolyn Grawi, CIL’s director of advocacy and education.
I talked with Grawi and Library Director Josie Parker several times over the past two weeks, sometimes relaying opinions back and forth. I also spoke with a local architect and a city official about whether the new entrance meets codes.
The design appears to meet ADA requirements and building codes. But it doesn’t appear the library or the DDA, which funded the construction of the entrance, solicited input from people with disabilities on the project’s design. If they had, they may have learned the design makes a lot of people feel unsafe.
Now, some are asking the library to consider additional enhancements to the entrance.
The new entrance was constructed by the DDA in June, when it became necessary to close the library’s existing wheelchair ramp due to construction on the adjacent Fifth Avenue underground parking structure.
The entrance consists of a gradually sloping walkway leading to an open platform in front of the library’s porch. The platform has a step on the north and west sides. A portion of the previous front steps leading to the library’s porch remains to the north of the platform. None of the steps have handrails.
Parker said she’s proud of the new barrier-free entrance, which is ADA-compliant, and handrails aren’t required because it isn’t steep enough to be considered a ramp.
Parker said the new entrance will be in place for at least one to two years. Once Library Lane — a new street running from Fifth to Division between the library and garage — opens, a new entrance may be constructed on that side of the building, she said.
I took a look at the new entrance with Grawi. As a mom, I have to admit the sight of it made me uneasy. I immediately pictured my 3-year-old son tumbling down the open steps.
Grawi, who is legally blind and uses a cane for guidance, pointed out how easy it was for her to trip over the walkway’s edge because the yellow stripe indicating the drop-off doesn’t show up well on the white concrete. She said she’d like to see a concrete post marking the beginning of the slope, and a higher-contrast color like red or blue replace the yellow.
Then we walked over to the steps, which Grawi said are even more problematic. “A person in a wheelchair with low vision who comes out of the library can easily come rolling off the edge,” Grawi said.
Grawi called the low incline of the walkway “fabulous,” but said “the wonderful, accessible, zero-step entry has steps off the side of it. They opened it up and didn't protect the sides.”
Robin Bennett, an Ann Arbor resident who frequently visits the library and uses a wheelchair, said she has seen people walk off the edge of the platform and doesn’t think it’s safe.
“I've actually witnessed people walking out and walking right off the end, not noticing there was a step down,” Bennett said. “Or taking one step and not realizing there are two.”
Architect David Esau of Cornerstone Design questioned whether the new steps were necessary at all. “From a safety standpoint, it might be better to just close it off, since there are (the older) steps there.”
Parker said she declined to consider adding railings around the steps because they would have negative unintended consequences: people would climb on them, and they would narrow the entrance, which could make it more difficult for emergency personnel to access the library.
Ann Arbor Chief Development Official Ralph Welton said the design went beyond state building code by adding the step off the platform. Code would have allowed it to just drop off, with no step or handrails.
However, he said, “If Josie were to ask me, I would recommend them coming up with a way for people to have something to grab on to when coming out of the library. But if it's not required by the code, then I can't require it.”
In the few minutes I stood at the entrance with Grawi, we saw a man climbing the old steps, clutching a nearby brick column to help himself up.
Esau also suggested putting “detectable warnings” at the top of the stairs. Grawi said detectable warnings don’t have to be the raised bumps you see at curb ramps. They could be tar strips or etchings in the concrete — just something that a seeing person could detect visually and a blind person could detect with a cane.
Parker said detectable warnings at the steps would be a tripping hazard for people without disabilities. She said she has to consider the needs of everyone using the library, not only the disabled.
“I think the edge is the signal,” Parker said. As for people rolling off, she said, “that could happen in any stairwell in the city.”
Of Grawi’s request for a concrete post marking the beginning of the incline, Parker said, “I'm not sure I can do that. But because she's indicating a need for a physical marker, I’m going to look at that and see if we can find a compromise.”
Parker agreed to add signs explaining how to navigate the entrance. She also agreed to remove a yellow line at the top of the walkway that some people found confusing. She also has two more meetings scheduled with people who have concerns about the entryway, and said she may change her decisions based on those discussions.
Grawi said the whole situation could have been avoided if the library and DDA had consulted with the CIL or others who specialize in accessibility.
“I made a statement to the library board a year ago asking for them to call on us when they make any physical changes to their buildings,” Grawi said. “Here they didn't consult us, and now people are unhappy with it and feel unsafe.”
Jen Eyer is on the Community Team at AnnArbor.com, and she writes a citizen advocacy column. Do you have a problem you’d like to share? Contact Jen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 623-2577, or fill out this form.