Marblehead’s public spaces require $3.6M in ADA upgrades, ‘unprecedented’ study reveals

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this news story incorrectly stated the cost to make Glover Elementary School compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The actual estimated cost is $55,900.

A new study of accessibility barriers at more than 40 public parks, beaches, cemeteries, schools and municipal buildings in Marblehead identified needed improvements totaling $3.6 million.

A collage of several buildings and public spaces detailed in a comprehensive study assessing Amercians with Disabilities Act compliance. COURTESY PHOTOS / TOWN OF MARBLEHEAD

The study, conducted by the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston, evaluates every publicly owned facility and property for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The study was funded through a $50,000 grant from the state’s Community Compact Cabinet program.

Laurie Blaisdell, chair of the Marblehead Disabilities Commission, called the study “unprecedented in scope” and said she is “really proud of the town for getting on board and recognizing this is an important issue. It affects everyone.”

Blaisdell said the study now makes it easier for Marblehead to compete for full implementation grants.

The 78-page assessment states that while Marblehead is committed to accessibility, “the town has limited resources with which to address accessibility issues and competing priorities.” It includes transition plan checklists prioritizing short- and long-term improvements such as re-striping parking lots, installing automatic door openers, replacing toilet fixtures and amenities, rebuilding ramps and stairs and replacing small elevators with larger ones over the next one to five years.

Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer said the town views the report as a road map to guide annual budget and capital planning processes.

“It’s about getting it funded,” said Kezer. “ADA compliance needs to be more central to prioritizing [capital projects].”

Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer recently presented the findings of a new study on accessibility barriers at dozens of public parks, beaches, cemeteries, schools, and municipal buildings in Marblehead to the Marblehead Disabilities Commission. The identified improvements cumulatively total $3.6 million.

More than half of the $3.6 million total stems from just 11 sites.

Leading the list is Marblehead High School at more than $500,000. The Glover and Village elementary schools cumulatively top $300,000. Among beaches, Devereux leads with $170,000 in needed upgrades, while Stramski’s requires nearly $90,000 in improvements. Historic sites like Abbot Hall and Old Town House need upwards of $60,000 in modifications. Rounding out the most expensive projects are the Mary Alley Municipal Building, the harbor building and Seaside Park approaching $160,000.

Mary Manning, a Salem School Committee member, teaches mobility and balance classes at the Judy and Gene Jacobi Community Center twice a week. She uses a wheelchair and crutches, and she argued communities must make ADA compliance a priority, not always citing costs as an excuse to delay improving accessibility.

“I think they’re only as important as they’re followed up on as far as the findings are implemented,”she said “Like with any study, it’s the follow-up action afterwards that’s important.”

Her professional expertise underscores the impact of barriers like steep ramps and difficult doors. Manning said Marblehead has positives but also challenges due to narrow sidewalks and cobblestones in some areas.

Among the top concerns cited in the study’s public engagement process were poor sidewalk conditions, lack of beach access, an absence of accessibility at some playgrounds and problems with accessing town meetings.

As part of the assessment, Marblehead conducted an accessibility survey that 190 people responded to in late 2022 to evaluate town facilities, programs and services. Key findings include:

— 95% of respondents were Marblehead residents. More than half were over age 65.

— 34% said they or someone they care for has had difficulty accessing a town building due to a disability. The buildings most commonly cited were Abbot Hall, the Abbot Public Library and the Old Town House.  

— 38% said they’ve had difficulty accessing an outdoor recreation area, with the most common areas being Devereux Beach, Grace Oliver Beach and Old Burial Hill Cemetery.

— 18% have made a request to the town for a disability accommodation. Of those, 28% said staff was responsive but unable to resolve the issue.

— The most common aids used by respondents or those they care for were wheelchairs, walkers and canes.

— Sidewalks, crosswalks, curb ramps and pedestrian crossings were rated as difficult to use by more than 50% of respondents.  

— 84% did not know whom to contact at the town about accessibility issues.

Manning advocated for Marblehead’s Disabilities Commission to be involved as the town carries out the transition plan.

“Many people genuinely want to provide the right facilities for those with disabilities, but often there’s a gap in understanding. For instance, someone might suggest a ramp as an accessible entrance,” said Manning. “But if that ramp is too steep or lacks proper railings, it’s unusable.”

She added, “It’s crucial for experts in the field and people with lived experience to review and ensure these facilities meet the required standards.”

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