Disabilities revolution hits home

August 11, 2010

The recent $1 million settlement by a well-known architectural firm and a prominent developer should serve as a chilling warning that the disabilities community and the U.S. Justice Department are deadly serious when it comes to enforcing the accessibility regulations of the federal Fair Housing Act.

Under the agreement, Gensler Architecture Design & Planning, successor corporation to the firm of the late Harry Weese, and developer John Buck Co., both of Chicago, will have to retrofit 227 noncompliant apartments in a 24-story, 283-unit structure in Evanston, Ill. These units were built with thermostats that were too high for persons with disabilities to reach, doors that were too narrow for wheelchairs, and bathrooms that were too tight for wheelchair access.

The architectural firm also will pay $13,600 in civil penalties, plus $30,000 in attorney fees to the plaintiff, Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago. John Buck Co. agreed to pay $50,000 into a fund to enable persons with disabilities to rent in the future.

Obviously, these costs could have been avoided at the design stage. The project architect said that, while his plans met all city and state regulations on accessibility, he was not aware of the federal law. But he was not alone. Forty-six of the 47 buildings tracked by the plaintiff to build its case were out of compliance with federal housing regulations.

Even today, most architects, owners, and contractors confuse the Fair Housing Act, which covers new multifamily residential construction, with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which covers nonresidential buildings.

"Some firms have been successful in integrating the [Fair Housing Act] regulations, but many others are just not paying attention," says James Terry of Evan Terry Associates, Birmingham, Ala.

What can the building profession do? "Accessibility has to be considered from the moment you start thinking about spaces," says John Catlin, a partner with LCM Architects, Chicago.

The building team must also recognize that the disabilities rights movement will not go away. Not with 54 million Americans being counted as persons with disabilities by the federal government. Not with an aging population of Baby Boomers waiting for their first hip replacement.

As the poet Cheryl Marie Wade cried out so eloquently in "Cripple Lullaby":

I am the Earth's last volcano, and I am ready to blow.

To the Editor:

The John Buck Co. is the owner and developer of the Park Evanston [the multifamily high-rise project discussed in the editorial].

HWA designed the project under contract with the John Buck Co., owner and developer, and construction was completed in 1991. Gensler acquired certain assets of HWA in 2000.

The original lawsuit, filed in December 2001, named as defendants the John Buck Co. and HWA. Gensler was subsequently added as a defendant.

Without admitting liability, the John Buck Co. agreed to retrofit the building and pay $30,000 to Access Living, $50,000 to an aggrieved persons compensation fund, and $25,000 in civil penalties to the U.S. Government.

Without admitting liability, HWA (through its insurance carrier) agreed to pay $937,000 toward the cost of the retrofit and other amounts paid by the John Buck Co., and Gensler agreed to contribute $10,000 to Access Living.

Jan Lakin
Director of Media Relations
Gensler Architecture Design & Planning
New York, N.Y.


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