NEWS

Department of Justice turns its eye to Cedar Rapids on American with Disabilities Act

$15 million fix in works over next few years

A newly installed wheelchair and vision-impaired accessible curb ramp is shown along Glass Road NE in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May 14, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
A newly installed wheelchair and vision-impaired accessible curb ramp is shown along Glass Road NE in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May 14, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — By 2012, city of Cedar Rapids had moved into the former three-story federal courthouse, the hallways on each floor of which stretch nearly an entire city block.

As it renovated the building, the city planned to put all the women’s restrooms on each floor and on the lower level on one side of the building, and all the men’s on the other side.

“‘So I’ve gotten into the building, and now you’re telling me that the rest room is literally on the other end of the block?’” recalled Assistant City Manager Sandi Fowler, imagining what someone with a walker on the wrong side of the building might say.

A citizen advisory group identified the coming problem, and the rest room geography changed. Each gender’s rest room is on every other floor on both sides of the building, at most a one-floor elevator ride away.

“We learned that, with a walker, every step counts,” Fowler said.

Fowler is the point person for the city in its negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice as the two parties close in on finalizing a settlement agreement that will give the city three years to comply with certain aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1992 and four years to comply with others.

Last week, the City Council approved taking on $4.85 million in new debt to pay for some of the work it needs to complete in order to comply with the settlement agreement.

The expectation is that the city will need an equal amount the next two years for a total of, perhaps, $15 million, Fowler said.

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Yet, she said she didn’t anticipate any resident, even the most-ardent tax-cut advocate, would complain about spending on ADA compliance.

“I would guess there are enough people who have close relationships with someone who benefits from this,” she said. “I think most people are surprised when you have a barrier (to accessibility) than if you’re trying to fix it.”

The Department of Justice first contacted the city via letter in February 2011 with an “invitation to participate” in a departmental audit of the city’s compliance with Title 2 of ADA, which addresses local governments. No one had complained about the city to the department — but rather, it was Cedar Rapids’s turn for a compliance review, the department’s letter said.

Des Moines, Iowa’s largest city, already had its audit.

If the initial letter to Cedar Rapids in early 2011 seemed like an invitation, the settlement agreement is anything but.

“It’s like a settlement agreement for a lawsuit,” Fowler said.

A team of a dozen or so DOJ employees conducted Cedar Rapids’s audit in June 2011, which was a weeklong exercise that featured on-site reviews of most of the city’s major parks, its swimming pools and parking garages and some select city facilities, including a district fire station, Veterans Memorial Stadium and the city’s Ice Arena. The DOJ contacted the city again in July 2014 with a draft of a settlement agreement.

Many of the major flood-hit city buildings — which were either in the process of renovation or in the process of being replaced at the time of the audit — were not in the DOJ audit and will need to be audited by an independent architect.

However, Fowler said, the city had its consultants sit down with the DOJ architects back in 2011 to go over design plans for the city’s new buildings and the renovations of existing ones.

“We wanted our architects to know that it’s not if the Department of Justice looks at your buildings, but when,” she said.

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The audit of the city’s district fire station at 206 29th St. NE — built in the late 1990s a few years after the ADA went into effect in January 1992 — is instructive of the kinds of fixes that the city may face in buildings it built or modified after 1992, except for those that were worked on after the 2008 flood.

For example, a sign on a bathroom in the fire station is mounted too high, as is a towel dispenser, and pipes under a sink need to be recessed and a hot water pipe covered so someone in a wheelchair can’t hit them.

Luckily, the city can sidestep a bigger ticket item by moving a handicapped parking spot behind the fire station instead of reducing the slope of the sidewalk from the current spot to the front of the building.

Fowler said much of the DOJ focus is on the city’s parks and recreational venues. She added that the city’s parks are “troublesome” because they are old, big and feature plenty of amenities where the public must get from parking lots to tennis courts, swimming pools, park pavilions and more.

Specifications for the slope of pathways are demanding and will require some fixes, she said.

The city also projects that it will need to replace 12 water fountains — at a cost of about $10,000 each — so each fountain has a higher and lower place to drink.

‘A lot of ramps’

However, the biggest cost the city faces as part of its settlement agreement with the DOJ involves the installation of curb ramps where sidewalks meet the street.

According to city figures, there are 10,300 locations in the city where curb ramps are required, and of that total, 8,000 may need to be addressed. Some 5,000 have been put in place before or since the ADA went into place in 1992 and likely no longer meet current specifications or have been damaged by the state’s freeze-thaw cycles.

Another 3,000 are not in place need to be installed. At an estimated cost of $1,500 each, it could be $12 million of work.

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“That’s a lot of ramps,” Fowler said. She added that the DOJ is giving the city one year to come up with a plan and three years after that to deliver.

Kevin Vrchoticky, a civil engineer in the city’s Public Works Department who works on ADA matters including sidewalks, said curb ramps are both “design intensive” and “construction intensive” because they must be removed and replaced if the grade up and down exceeds an allowable specification or if the cross slope does.

The curb ramps also are colored so pedestrians with limited visibility are alerted to the street corner, and the ramps come with small, detectable domes to help notify the visually impaired. The domes, which Vrchoticky called “the little red things at the end of the sidewalk,” ideally are spaced to allow a wheelchair to pass without too bumpy a ride.

“It’s by no means a simple task, that is for sure,” Vrchoticky said. “The design and construction is not easy. But it really comes down to how many we have to do and when.”

Fowler said she has read several settlement agreements between the DOJ and other cities, and curb ramps are a major element in all of them.

The city of Iowa City also has been back and forth with the DOJ in the past year over curb ramps after someone lodged a complaint about the condition of curb ramps there. However, Simon Andrew, administrative assistant in the Iowa City city manager’s office, said the DOJ “is pleased with the direction we’re moving” and has not issued any directive to the city.

‘A reasonable way’

Chris Thoms has been a member of the Cedar Rapids/Linn County ADA Advisory Committee that has come to be since the DOJ conducted its audit in Cedar Rapids in June 2011.

Thoms, 72, who lost his eyesight at age 18 in an accident, said the city has been approaching the standards set out by the ADA in “a reasonable way” as a city with a diverse population should. Access to park facilities, recreational equipment in parks and local transit is important, he said. He credited the city with delivering committee documents to him in a way so his document reader can read them aloud to him.

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Tom Hardecopf, director of the Linn County LIFTS transit program and the current vice chairman of the ADA Advisory Committee, he said the DOJ’s wish is that all of the ADA work had been done yesterday.

But he added the federal government needs to be realistic about how much money a local government can come up with and at what speed to meet the standards.

ADA standards affect many of the clients who use the LIFTS transit service, and so the standards are important to them and him, Hardecopf said. But everyone should view them as important, he said.

“Most people think they help someone in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t affect me,” Hardecopf said. “But you wait until tomorrow, when you’re 75 and had a knee replaced.”

Most of the people in Iowa and the United States who live beyond 80 will have some kind of disability, he said.

“These improvements will have an impact for them. Maybe not today, but someday,” he said.

The city’s Fowler started work with the Cedar Rapids 25 years ago, and she said she wrote a term paper on what the city faced with ADA as she was finishing her bachelor’s degree at Mount Mercy College a year after the ADA went into effect.

“We’re very proud of the fact that the city has attempted to achieve full compliance with ADA,” she said. “It’s a very difficult and all-encompassing law, however.”

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Last year, Fowler was among a group of city officials who gave Iowa’s retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin — a central figure in the creation of the ADA — a tour of the city to show him how Cedar Rapids had recovered from the flood of 2008 and how it was preparing to build a flood control system.

The tour drove by the a new apartment complex, the Oakhill Jackson Brickstones on Sixth Street SE, which feature tall stairs to get to front doors.

“How do you get in? How is that accessible?” Fowler recalled Harkin wanted to know.

The complex also has at-grade entrances that lead to an elevator, she said.

“It was great to see Sen. Harkin still very passionate about accessibility standards, and we were pleased to show him that it was important to us as well,” she said.

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