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Celebrating Accessible Design at Boston City Hall Plaza

Yesterday the City of Boston held its annual ADA Day celebration at Boston City Hall, where city officials and disability advocates remarked on the importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and highlighted the transformational accessibility of Sasaki’s City Hall Plaza renovations approaching completion nearby.

Since its opening in 1968, the plaza had been largely inaccessible to people with disabilities. Its original design forced people to navigate a 26-foot descent from Cambridge Street to Congress Street across several sets of stairs, broke wheelchair bearings with its rough and widely-spaced bricks, and only had one accessible entrance to City Hall itself. When Kristen McCosh was appointed as Disability Commissioner of Boston in 2010, these barriers still persisted, 20 years after the passage of the ADA.

In an interview with Sasaki, Commissioner McCosh reflected that, at the beginning of her term as the City’s chief accessibility officer, “People with disabilities felt like they literally had no path into City Hall.” One of the first things she and other advocates on the Disabilities Commission Advisory Board successfully pushed for was the installation of an asphalt ramp leading to the building’s entrance. It was a start, but as the Commissioner pointed out, a ramp that forced people with disabilities to use entirely separate infrastructure was still insufficient.

“In Boston we don’t settle for just the minimum compliance for anything, so why should we do that when it comes to accessibility?” Commissioner McCosh said. “We strive for what we call ideal accessibility, which incorporates not only access, but also inclusion.”

Sasaki’s renovation of Boston City Hall Plaza finally achieves that vision.

Rather than creating a separate experience for people with disabilities, the new plaza design integrates accessibility into the foundation of the space. Every area will be universally accessible. The 26-foot slope of the site is no longer navigated by a series of steps but by a sweeping and gently sloping promenade that ties the whole plaza together, linking Cambridge Street to Congress Street with a new, fully-accessible route. For the first time, all primary entrances to City Hall are universally accessible as well, connected to gathering spaces by gradual inclines rather than circuitous ramps. And while maintaining the plaza’s original material palette, the new design uses bricks that are tightly jointed, stabilized by edge restraints, finely detailed, and deliberately patterned to prevent mobility aids from getting stuck in cracks, a notorious problem with the unprotected bricks of the old plaza.

These are key features that Commissioner McCosh and her Advisory Board have spent years fighting for. “When we saw the plans that the City and Sasaki came up with to renovate the whole plaza for ADA compliance, we couldn’t have been more thrilled,” said McCosh. “Disability advocates were asking me, ‘How are we going to know which part is the accessible route?’ And I said, ‘You don’t understand. There is no single accessible route, the whole thing is accessible.’ It’s tough for people to wrap their minds around that idea because the plaza has been inaccessible for so long, and I think once we do the big reveal, they’ll be thrilled with the access that has been built in.”

Other new accessibility components include more than 10 companion seating arrangements in performance spaces across the plaza, a public indoor Civic Pavilion that overlooks Hanover Street, and a 12,000 square-foot accessible playscape that provides equal opportunities for children with different abilities to reach the play elements. The playscape features transfer spaces for children to get out of a wheelchair and gain access to elevated elements, accessible operating wheels and buttons to operate play elements, and an accessible path through the entire play area. Unique sensory components—including interactive water runnels, interactive chimes, and play cubes with varied concrete textures etched with letters and numerals—also provide a range of experiences for children with sensory disabilities.

The new City Hall Plaza officially opens this fall, and Sasaki’s designers hope that it serves as an inspiration for universal accessibility projects across the city. On that point, Commissioner McCosh is hopeful. “Boston has a lot of built-in challenges,” she said. “We’re an old city and a historic city. We’re a winter city, we’re a vertical city, and we’re a densely packed city. All those things together don’t make a great roadmap for access. However, we do have political will. We have progressive leaders, we have intelligent and talented people from a lot of universities, and we have great firms like Sasaki to put on their thinking caps and come up with ways to create accessibility.”

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