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Downtown View: How Not to Present a Plan

The Beacon Hill neighborhood faces a situation in which two good goals — handicap accessibility and historic preservation — clash. Any steps taken to achieve those goals should be a win for both. But a presentation on Thursday night was a loss for both.

There are rules for success when city officials want to make changes in a neighborhood.

1. Understand the neighborhood’s history.
2. Understand what the real problem is.
3. Consult with neighbors.
4. Present two or three plans of high quality.
5. Make a good case for your change.

Public Works officials did none of those things on Thursday night when they tried to get the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission to approve removing bricks and installing concrete at dozens of intersections in that historic neighborhood to make it more handicap accessible. The commission denied the request, but this won’t go away.

I know that Beacon Hill residents can be an annoying, self-satisfied lot when anyone talks of making changes anywhere inside the rectangle formed by Storrow Drive and Cambridge, Bowdoin and Beacon streets. But they have a history of successfully protecting their historic materials. Neighborhood leaders thwarted an attempt by city officials in 1920 to repave Mount Vernon Street in red shale paving blocks. In 1947, when city workers arrived to replace bricks with concrete, ladies of the Hill lay down on the bricks and wouldn’t move until the city gave in. In the 1970s, Mayor White bricked every sidewalk on the Hill, planted trees and increased the number of gas lights, so the entire historic district registered as a distinct entity. Mark Kiefer explained why preservationists are so adamant. “When it’s gone, it’s gone,” he said.

On Thursday night, city officials forgot that the neighborhood had successfully prevailed in previous fights. They didn’t make the case that this time was different.

Public Works showed they didn’t understand the problem. The problem is not that Beacon Hill’s sidewalks don’t have adequate ramps. The problem is that the way we’ve designed streets and sidewalks to accommodate vehicles over pedestrians has put people, disabled or not, in danger.

Neglecting the third rule, Public Works appeared secretive about their plans. They did not hold meetings in the neighborhood. About a month ago city officials accused the Beacon Hill Civic Association of spreading wrong information and rumors about the changes. Turns out the “rumors” were true.

No neighbor supported the changes. Support came only from other city officials, or inexplicably, a handicap-access advocate from Maine.

Then there was the proposal. The pictures of their intentions were so ugly and shoddily constructed, with a big blob of asphalt connecting the ramp to the street, that onlookers gasped. Then laughed.

There was talk from the city about how bad bricks are and how wonderful concrete is, but with no evidence. Rob Whitney had done his homework with evidence on the other side. I guess city officials haven’t looked at their concrete sidewalks downtown, where spawling and asphalt patches make them interesting to walk on and unsightly.

Finally, they showed they did not understand the basic culture of Beacon Hill. It’s not just those with disabilities who can’t get down Beacon Hill’s sidewalks. It’s everyone. The bricks are here for history. We walk in the street. The few cars are used to it.

A friend of mine in a motorized wheel chair once said Beacon Hill was a good place for him to live, at the top of the Hill no less, because he just climbed the Hill in the street and felt safe because neighborhood drivers were accustomed to people in the street.

Remarkably, there are other solutions, and one was staring the presenters in the face from the previous application. Make the street walkable. Frank McGuire pointed this out at the very end.

It will happen soon on a part of Joy Street. Other Public Works officials will raise the street to meet the sidewalk. That plan was approved by the commission minutes before the Public Works’s Rube Goldbergs laid out their plan. Streets on which cars and people share space have proven in the Netherlands to be a counter-intuitive success. It slows down the cars and makes all more aware of their surroundings.

It obviates the need for ramps. It allows brick to remain and asphalt to do its job. Another solution has been popular in Cambridge—raise a wide pedestrian crossing that cars must traverse slowly.

There are probably other solutions too. City officials said they compromised by allowing the concrete on the ramps to be white instead of bright yellow. That is no compromise.

In tussles like these, it is unacceptable for one side to win and the other to lose. Both sides must win.

The new state Rep. Jay Livingston suggested that everyone come together to hammer out a solution that works for everyone. It looks as if Mark Kiefer, Frank McGuire and Rob Whitney should be on that committee.

After the holidays, I’ll tell you about another cockeyed plan Public Works has in mind for Beacon Hill — the deforestation of the neighborhood.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at