Accessibility Watch: Navigating New York’s Building Code

In our running series on accessibility issues in buildings and cities, we’ve looked at some ways that New York City in particular may fall short when it comes to providing easy, well-maintained design for people with limited mobility. So when our publisher noticed what appeared to be a dearth of handicap-friendly design at a well-known restaurant–one that happens to sit in a landmarked building–we took it upon ourselves to investigate.

What we found was one small-scale instance of just how complex these issues can be. In this case, the restaurant blamed the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) for rejecting its request to install an exterior-stairwell hand rail. The LPC countered that it had never received such a request, and that it would almost certainly have approved one if it had. The restaurant’s architect had only worked on the interiors, and therefore claimed ignorance of the whole situation.

It didn’t seem productive to investigate the matter beyond this impasse—but we did want to take a closer look at the larger issues at play here. What interested us most about this case was the building’s historic status. How do city government and private owners reconcile the desire to protect the character of historic buildings with the need to promote accessibility?

In theory, the solution is pretty straightforward. When asked about accessibility features in commercial spaces, a representative from the LPC said, “We’ve never turned down a request for barrier-free access. Our job is to try to figure out a way to solve a problem without detracting from the historic building or diminishing its significance.” To prove the point, LPC provided us with a list of landmarked buildings where new additions had been approved. Where accessibility features like ramps or lifts are necessary, the agency works with building owners to mitigate the visual effect of those additions, sometimes suggesting an appropriate color or material palette or camouflaging the new design with landscaping.

But exploring the bureaucratic world of design regulation made us curious to know more about which buildings fall under what regulations—and since we’d already started, we decided to follow the rabbit hole of building code just a little further. Here, for those curious about how these things work, is what we learned:

In general, there are three sets of design guidelines that apply to accessible-building practices in New York–those outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and a local law (LL58). For the most part, all three sets of rules apply only to new construction: ADA guidelines are used for public or commercial buildings, FHA guidelines for residential ones, the local law for both. Not all residences are bound by accessibility requirements, however. LL58 exempts one- and two-family homes (and in larger buildings that have no elevator, only the ground floor has to be accessible), and federal law grants exceptions for elevator-serviced buildings with four units or fewer.

Things get a little murkier when it comes to alterations made to existing structures. If a renovation is extensive, and costly, enough, the law considers it equivalent to new construction, in which case a building owner may have to make the entire structure handicap accessible–except, that is, if he proves compliance would create an “undue economic burden,” or not achieve any significant gains in accessibility.

This is all to say that it’s a somewhat complicated process, designed to accommodate a variety of interests. And while the vast majority of existing city housing does not have to meet accessibility standards, anything built in the last twenty years or so, and any future construction, does.

Moreover, regulation is by nature a fairly blunt instrument, and city agencies can be clumsy in its application. But–getting back to our starting point–as far as landmark buildings go, the city seems to be demonstrating a welcome degree of flexibility in the spirit of creative problem-solving. If, however, you’re an architect or developer (or just a humble citizen) who has a different perspective on this issue, we’d love to hear from you. Leave your thoughts in the comments form below, or drop us a line at pov@metropolismag.com.
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Update, 3/10/10: As if things weren’t complicated enough, one helpful reader pointed out some more specifications: Currently, the construction codes stipulate that renovations must comply with the more stringent handicap-accessibility laws only if the cost of those alterations exceeds 50 percent of the replacement value of the existing building. Alternatively, if building use changes, the new accessibility rules also apply.

And, adding to the potential confusion, accessibility issues can fall under the administrative purview of not only the DOB and, in some cases, the LPC, but also the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPDB) and the NYC Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR). The last of these agencies is responsible for enforcing the city’s Human Rights Law, which can be invoked by tenants even in cases where city building code does not apply.

A developer probably wouldn’t have to deal with every one of those agencies on any particular project, but the bureaucratic tangle certainly makes things complicated.
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Previously: Earlier this week, we visited a new Web site that provides an enlightening and occasionally amusing glimpse of New York landmarks preservation. Last week, our editor in chief reviewed the exhibition Modernism at Risk–and reflected on the need for constant vigilance by design activists and preservationists. To read all of our accessibility-related blog posts, click here.

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