City, disabled resident reach agreement in federal 'parklet' suit

Julie Manganis/Staff file photoA parklet the city installed this summer on Washington Street in Salem.

SALEM — The city of Salem has agreed to consult with the Massachusetts Office on Disability and its own building inspector prior to building any new “parklets” in the future, under the terms of a settlement reached with a local man who took the city to court in August. 

Steve Kapantais, a man with visual impairment, said Thursday he feels “pretty satisfied” with the agreement filed a day earlier in U.S. District Court. 

“The biggest thing is that going forward, in the future, they will have better technical advice,” Kapantais said. 

“It was a trial, and the city was looking to see if they were viable,” said city solicitor Beth Rennard. “I think we learned a lot from this.”

The stipulation of dismissal filed on Wednesday, says in part that if, in the future, Salem decides to build new parklets, it will commit to working with Kapantais, the city’s Disability Commission, and the building commissioner, and will also seek technical advice from the Massachusetts Office on Disability. 

The parklets were set up in parking spaces on Washington and Lafayette streets in August, to some initial fanfare. 

The spots were covered with green fake grass carpet, surrounded by metal barricades and then filled with chairs and tables with umbrellas. 

To an untrained observer, they also appeared to meet access requirements, with ramps from the sidewalk down onto the “grass.” But those ramps were at too severe a pitch to be safe. An effort to alter the grade then made the ramps so long, a wheelchair user wouldn’t have room to exit the ramp. The ramps were removed and one end of the barricade was opened so that wheelchair users could enter from an existing curb cut, but, Kapantais found, one of those cuts was not up to current code and suffered from puddling. 

Among the other issues: Umbrellas had been installed on tables, but they were at a height that posed a hazard to visually-impaired users and had to be removed. The furniture, at first simply placed in the parklet, was frequently moved by users, preventing people in wheelchairs or other types of mobility devices from getting past chairs or tables, and was then strapped to the barricades. 

The parklets, which were intended to be temporary, were dismantled on Sept. 23. 

Kapantais said that was two days after Tom St. Pierre, the city’s building inspector, took another look at the parklets. 

Kapantais said there were still violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state’s building code on the sites at that point. 

“It’s unfortunate he wasn’t involved early in the process, like when they bought the furniture,” said Kapantais. 

He also said he thinks the oversights were simply because of a rush to install the parklets, and not any bad intent on anyone’s part. 

His goal in filing the federal lawsuit was, he said, to make the city aware of its ongoing obligations. 

“When you deal with a city that’s 350 years old, of course there are going to be non-compliant structures,” he said. But new projects shouldn’t have access issues. 

“The general public, when they look and see an orange ramp, they say, ‘Look, it’s accessible,’ when in reality it’s not,” he said. 

Rennard said that while a final decision hasn’t been made whether to bring the parklets back, the city already has some ideas about how it will do things differently, including building platforms that would eliminate the need for ramps altogether. 

But she’s also looking for solutions to other issues, such as how to get shade on the parklets without the ability to use table umbrellas, which, besides causing obstacles for some people, make it impossible for someone in a wheelchair to sit at a table. “We’ve got to figure that out,” said Rennard, who uses a wheelchair.

Rennard said she’s studying what other cities, like San Francisco, have done with their parklets to make them accessible. 

“Everybody put their best effort in and we tried to address the issues,” said Rennard. “We’ve got to figure a few things out.”

For his part, Kapantais said, he intends to be more aware of planned public projects so that he can offer input in the early stages, as he did recently with a plan to allow businesses to set up tents. 

The suit did not seek any financial compensation, only a request for a court order to force the city to take action. 

Kapantais said that even in 2019, there remains a lack of awareness of the civil rights of people with disabilities to enjoy the same public spaces as anyone else. 

He pointed to a new $41 million public library in Long Island City, New York, which features a fiction section that is set up in three parts — and accessible only from stairs running alongside the section. 

While officials said disabled library users can request that titles be pulled for them, Kapantais said that overlooks one major reason people enjoy visiting libraries, the ability to browse. 

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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