Thursday, September 07, 2006

Historic Preservation & the Disabled in Pittsford

UPDATE: To ease confusion, I added some pictures of the building where Ben & Jerrys is located (see below).

The Americans with Disabilities Act was a groundbreaking piece of legislation that made it mandatory for, among other things, buildings to provide accessible entrances for the disabled. While we still have a long way to go before those in wheelchairs have the same freedom of mobility as those of us who are able to walk, it is undeniable that the ADA has had a significant positive impact on the lives of disabled Americans. But sometimes, buildings simply cannot meet ADA requirements. These are typically older historic structures in dense urban areas which are either physically impossible to make accessible or, by making them accessible, their architectural/historical integrity would be caused irreparable harm.

Case in point, the newly-opened Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shop in the Village of Pittsford.
As News10NBC reported, the popular shop is located in a historic structure on South Main Street in Pittsford's quaint downtown area. The building, which probably dates from the late 1800s (update: see history of building following pictures below), cannot accommodate handicapped accessibility in the front entrance without severely damaging its character. In cases such as this, ADA allows for the establishment of an accessible rear entrance to the building. However, in the case of the building which houses Ben & Jerry's, an accessible rear entrance is precluded by the location of an adjacent building. The shop's owners provided a solution in the form of a portable ramp that can be brought out should a wheelchair-bound patron desire some of their ice cream.

Unfortunately, this is just not good enough for some people. Amy Wallace, whose son has muscular dystrophy, is upset by the lack of accessibility to the new Ben & Jerry's. She claims that the portable ramp is not wide enough for motorized wheelchairs, poses a safety hazard, and is degrading for disabled persons. Her solution: hire an architect. My solution: don't patronize Ben & Jerry's. The fact of the matter is, this is a beautiful historic building in a great location where vacant storefronts are few and far between. Hiring an architect to design a handicapped-accessible ramp for the structure would likely be a financial drain for the entrepreneurs and would either result in no change or developing an out-of-scale ramp that would ruin the integrity of this historic block.

As someone whose father was in a wheelchair for much of his life, I can understand Ms. Wallace's frustration. However, I completely disagree with her premise. Apparently, it would not be a problem for her had Ben & Jerry's never come to town. There have been various businesses in that location for many years and she has never come forward before. Just because a business that she and her son would like to patronize has taken up shop is no reason to come out of the woodwork claiming discrimination. If you do not like the accommodations that the business has provided for you, you can go elsewhere for your ice cream fix. Bill Wahl's for instance, is just a few blocks away.

There is another story here though. If it weren't for Ms. Wallace's issue, I never would have known that Ben & Jerry's had opened in our region. While I don't expect myself to make a trip to Pittsford just for them, especially with Corn Hill Creamery open not far from my humble abode; their opening is a good sign for our local economy. Ben & Jerry's only locates in vibrant areas, and while I would have preferred them to open up in the City, their decision to bring their popular store to our area is further proof of greater Rochester's continued resilience. Please do not make them regret their decision by forcing costly and unnecessary changes upon them and their historic building.

Update: The following pictures are borrowed from the Village of Pittsford. Ben & Jerry's is located where Walker's Landing was. The history of the Parker Block follows the pictures.

"This rare surviving early nineteenth century commercial building was constructed by Leonard Clapp and Sylvanus Lathrop in 1826. The south half of the building is believed have been built several years later than the north half. Built in the federal style, the Parker Block, like many early Pittsford buildings, had its eaves extended in the mid nineteenth century. Over the years the building has housed a general store, barber shop, tin shop, furnace store, bakery, Post Office, second-hand furniture store, telephone offices, the American Legion, and Town Court." (Village of Pittsford Walking Tour)