Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Breaking Down Barriers: Accessibility and the Rehabilitation of Older Buildings



While gearing up to begin construction on the 1890s commercial building at 1510-1514 Dorchester Avenue, HBI experienced first-hand the challenges inherent in balancing the need for undertaking substantial building improvements and providing accessibility in a distressed older building. HBI’s project team applied for a variance to the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (AAB) in August that would permit our façade rehabilitation project to go forward without a providing a lift or elevator to the second floor. However, the AAB members made it known that they believed providing vertical access to the second floor could and should be accomplished, and requested that HBI and the building owner pursue it.

In Massachusetts, renovation projects costing up to $100,000 must comply with accessibility requirements; if project costs exceed $100,000, then a public entrance (as well as a public toilet room, telephone, and drinking fountain if these are provided for public use) must also be made accessible to persons with disabilities. In addition, if the costs exceed 30% of the assessed value of the building only (not including the value of the land), then the entire building must be made accessible.

In neighborhoods such as Fields Corner, where typical assessed property values are fairly low and building repair needs are very high, this means that relatively small projects can trigger full accessibility compliance. For example, say a building is assessed at $500,000; 30% of this is $150,000. It is very easy for project costs that include items such as window and storefront replacement, installing new cladding, structural repairs, etc. to reach 30% of the building’s value.

For the project at 1510-1514 Dorchester Avenue, the facade rehabilitation costs exceed 30% of the building's assessed value. From the start, the project included enhancing the accessibility of the ground floor spaces by installing push-button automatic door openers on all of the storefronts, making it easier for people with disabilities to enter all of the spaces unassisted.
However, coming up with an approach that balances the need for completing over-due building envelope improvements with the importance of providing as much fair and equal access as possible in a highly constrained building and with a severely limited project budget is challenging. Given that the estimated cost of installing a lift would increase the project costs by as much as 50%, the project team asked for and received a three-year time variance in order to design a lift solution that would work best with the existing building conditions and tenants, and to give the team time to raise funds through grants and other sources to complete the work. This not only allows the façade project to proceed on schedule, but will, in the near future, result in a building that is more usable to persons with disabilities—a win-win situation for a historic building and for all of the people who use it.


HBI’s façade rehabilitation project at 1510-1514 Dorchester Avenue in Fields Corner—one of the two Historic Neighborhood Centers program districts—will bring about a major improvement to the commercial district’s streetscape, and will hopefully set a new standard for the treatment of the area’s historic commercial architecture.

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