The ADA ramp narrows and it descends to the back, basement entrance of City Hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The ADA ramp narrows and it descends to the back, basement entrance of City Hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) has formally requested that City Council’s Governance Committee consider a public design competition to improve the accessibility of City Hall for visitors with disabilities.

In his Council Consideration Request (CCR), Treviño stated that while the City technically complies with the Americans of Disabilities Act (ADA) by providing wheelchair access near the back entrance of building at the basement level, “it does not conform to the spirit of the law and presents an issue of discrimination; all visitors should be able to pass through the same iconic front entrance.”

City Hall’s front entrance is familiar to many San Antonians, not to only City leaders and staff who work and meet there, but to community members who attend meetings, gather for press conferences or organize protests on those 12 steps.

(Read More: Architects to Take Aim at City Hall’s Wheelchair Accessibility)

Disabled individuals, especially those with a wheelchair or a motorized device, can only use a narrow side entrance ramp leading to a back door, linking them to a basement elevator. Visitors then are buzzed into the facility after pressing a button, which alerts security personnel in the foyer.

“It’s a symbolic gesture, too. Those front doors should be accessible to all people,” Trevino told the Rivard Report on Tuesday.

City Council will formally begin preparations for its 2017 fiscal year budget with a goal-setting session Wednesday morning. Among a long list of items, the City will consider reallocating funds to hire a consultant that would advise the City on ADA compliance matters, Treviño said.

Such a hire would be unnecessary, Treviño said, because the City’s various departments already know what the issues are regarding accessibility at City Hall and other City-owned public gathering facilities, such as parks and senior centers.

So Treviño, who is an architect,  suggested the competition, which would be facilitated by the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The public would then help guide alterations to City Hall’s front entrance and preserve the building’s historic integrity, he added. Ultimately, such a competition would have to be approved by City Council.

AIA San Antonio has twice partnered with the City in the past year on public design competitions for the new San Antonio River barges and Stinson Airport’s new air control tower. This resulted in “beautiful and thoughtful enhancements to our City,” Treviño stated.

METALAB's river barge design won the AIA San Antonio/City of San Antonio design competition. Rendering courtesy of METALAB.
Metalab’s river barge design won the AIA San Antonio/City of San Antonio design competition. Rendering courtesy of Metalab.

This particular competition would have more to do with civil rights than architecture and design, he added noting that he has called on state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), who is a civil rights attorney and a former District 1 Council member.

Treviño’s office has received “a handful of complaints” from City Hall visitors about the building’s current accessibility, he said. In his most recent State of the Center City presentation, Trevino called accessibility vital to the urban core, especially at City Hall.

Trevino has worked closely with Judy Babbitt, a wheelchair user who has managed the City’s Disability Access office, in recent months to identify where the City could improve ADA accessibility on City properties.

“As an architect, I recognize this issue. It’s important that we be proactive,” Treviño said. “We know we can be technically within the letter of the law, but we could improve things. There’s no excuse. This building has been modified three to four times. History is not a barrier, it’s an opportunity.”

Christine Viña, president of the AIA San Antonio board of directors, said she was excited by the thought of her organization of “designers and problem-solvers for the built environment” working with the City to lead another public design competition.

“It would be a much smaller initiative (than river barges or Stinson), but equally important,” Viña told the Rivard Report. “This presents a difficult case, but something that is very achievable.”

One major challenge for this competition’s participants would be addressing how high the building’s first floor is above the ground, Viña said.

Overall, she agreed with Treviño’s belief that a public design competition would set the right tone and example for how other public properties citywide should be developed or modified with better access in mind. Viña considers access for people with disabilities in the projects she helps develop as an architect at VIA Metropolitan Transit.

When City leaders talk of improving connectivity and promoting walkability, it’s crucial for public gathering areas to be all-inclusive, she said, “if we expect our community to move forward.

“Any way we can partner with the City and create an environment where a meaningful dialogue can take place on this, is important.”

Understanding the city from all perspectives will help the City plan for the future, Treviño said.

“Most people don’t think about how the environment is designed until it affects them,” he said. “But look at Baby Boomers, they’re getting older, and the key issue with them is accessibility.”

Top image: The ADA ramp narrows as it descends to the back, basement entrance of City Hall.  Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.