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Durango ADA improvements underway, but universal accessibility a distant goal

Disability advocates say more work is needed along north Main Avenue
The lack of a sidewalk along north Main Avenue and 33rd Street makes it difficult to impossible to get a wheelchair, electric scooter or walker to the next section of sidewalk. The city of Durango is well aware of issues along the traffic vein and contracted SEH engineering to fix sidewalks, curb ramps and bus stops to improve accessibility. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Minor inconveniences for some can make or break the walkability of Main Avenue for others. Cracked sidewalks, missing curb ramps and inconveniently placed utility poles can pose real challenges for people with disabilities trying to navigate the streets of Durango.

The city of Durango is addressing these issues, in addition to upgrading about 17 Durango Transit bus stops on north Main Avenue where it’s feasible to do so.

But the city still has a long way to go to address accessibility as a whole, according to leaders of area organizations that provide disability services in Durango and Southwest Colorado.

City Multimodal Administrator Devin King said segments of north Main Avenue identified in a 2016 city Americans with Disabilities Act transition plan, which includes a list of millions of dollars worth of improvements for city bus stops and adjacent sidewalks around town, are receiving improvements this fall. The project is a continuation of improvements made in 2018 and 2019.

He said the areas of north Main Avenue that need improvement the most are the east side of 19th Street to 20th Street; the west side of 22nd Street to Brookside Park; the 27th Street transit stop and ramps; and the west side of 33rd Street to 34th Street.

FIXED: The city contracted SEH to design the improvements, which will be constructed in 2024 and 2025.

The problematic sidewalks contain construction points where the sidewalk becomes narrower than 3 feet wide, sometimes because of a utility pole sticking out and blocking the way. It is particularly hard for a person in a wheelchair, using a walker or pushing a stroller to get around, King said.

Laura McKelvey, 16, and Abigail Aleman, 16, walk around a utility pole in the middle of the sidewalk in the 2500 block of north Main Avenue on Thursday. Poles like this make it difficult to get a wheelchair, walker or stroller around them. The city of Durango has identified numerous locations like this one that would cost millions of dollars to repair all at once. The city has been making gradual progress on improvements since 2018. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Some sidewalks are cracked and need to be repaired. Others are missing curb ramps completely, while others still have curb ramps that don’t meet ADA standards.

“Some of it just has to do with the amount of space that is there for wheelchairs to rotate around to get onto a transit bus,” King said.

Bus stop improvements include new benches at stops that lack them, new weather and shade shelters where there is space to install them, and additional sidewalk repairs around the stops, he said.

King said the city has long focused on ADA improvements with seniors in mind, but there are other populations who benefit from them as well.

Audible crossing signals were installed at the 27th Street crossings after King was contacted by someone who works with vision-impaired students. Truncated domes – the yellow pads seen on some curb ramps that are there for the visually-impaired – were also installed at the crossings.

“We’ve been really trying to express that (improvements benefit everyone) so people don’t get hung up,” he said. “I think so often people are like, ‘Oh, that population that’s in wheelchairs or that needs walkers, there’s not that many of them.’”

Martha Mason, former director of Southwest Center for Independence, which provides support and training for people with disabilities, applauded the sidewalk and bus stop improvements along north Main Avenue.

“It’s good for people with strollers, it’s good for toddlers with little bikes. It’s good for people carrying groceries, to not have to trip over things,” she said. “It’s good for pregnant people. It’s good for elders who don’t see as well and can’t see that the sidewalk is all torn up.”

She said more work is needed, though.

A long way to go for universal accessibility

Mason said many low-income people live in the U.S. Highway 160 corridor, and the same improvements planned for north Main Avenue are needed there.

Downtown Durango is another problem area, she said. Many downtown businesses are inaccessible to people with disabilities that require wheelchair or walker use.

“From restaurants and hotels to all the little tourist shops downtown, people can’t get in,” she said. “Most of them have steps or (entrance ways) are so narrow that you can’t get in.”

She declined to name any particular business, but said “a lot of the restaurants feel it’s OK for wheelchair users to have to use the back door in the alley, taking their dates past the grease pits.”

“Going through the kitchen to get into the restaurant is not a good solution for people. It’s not showing of respect,” she said.

Community Connections President and CEO Tara Kiene said it is “sad and shocking” that the ADA was enacted 33 years ago in 1990 and “we are still trying to get accommodations universally.”

She said businesses, the city and La Plata County have a part to play in making communities more accessible.

Durango Business Improvement District Executive Director Tim Walsworth said ADA compliance is a legal requirement. He said that “by making the improvements that you should and you can as a business, you're opening up to more customers.”

But the problem with compliance is enforcing it, Mason said.

“The thing about ADA is there’s no enforcement. There’s no consequence other than lawsuits,” she said. “So there’s no method for the city looking at the bump-outs or a building permit, even, to check for accessibility.”

Also, business owners who rent their brick-and-mortar spaces from landlords can find themselves in a bind when the landlord doesn’t want to spend time or money on improvements.

The rise and fall of a city-funded assistance program

The city of Durango used to fund a program called the Accessible Communities Team that paid for ADA specialists to perform assessments of business spaces and provide recommendations. The program also matched expenditures for improvements up to $2,000.

Kiene said Community Connections was the fiscal agent for that program, which was implemented around 2015 and lasted a few years.

Mason said the idea behind the program was to demonstrate how small expenses for improving ADA accessibility really are.

Durango Chamber of Commerce CEO Jack Llewellyn, who was involved in Accessible Communities Team, said improvements made under the program included installation or repositioning of grab bars in restrooms, entryway and hallway modifications, ramp installments and improved parking space and other remodeling efforts.

The program revealed certain myths people believed about the ADA, Kiene said. For example, some business believed they had been “grandfathered in” and the ADA didn’t apply to them because their space had been built long before the disabilities act passed into law. But those notions are false.

“There’s no grandfathering in ADA,” she said.

Having an ADA assessment put a business at more liability than if it was in the dark about its accessibility issues was another myth. That sentiment reared its head at a time when Florida man Santiago Abreu, a self-identified “tester,” was suing businesses left and right over supposed accessibility issues.

“Of course that scares people,” Kiene said. “And this myth that somehow by having an assessment and knowing what’s wrong, that that puts businesses at more of a liability than if they just didn’t know, (that) was an odd dynamic that we ran into.”

Llewellyn said the program served the purpose of giving businesses an implementation plan for ADA improvements, which could help them avoid lawsuits because they would have a timeline for becoming compliant.

Kiene said the most challenging cases of ADA assessments were the businesses that were “really interested and excited and it was the landlord from someplace in Minnesota (that) didn’t really have any investment in the community.”

The city program eventually fell to the wayside.

Gone, but not forgotten

Kiene said the money budgeted for the Accessible Communities Team wasn’t being fully spent because the city couldn’t get enough businesses to participate.

The program managers had many back-and-forths about whether businesses should have to pay for half the costs or if the city should just foot all the bills, and people ultimately felt that businesses should have “some skin in the game.”

Llewellyn said some pricier improvements like automatic door opening systems were out of business owners’ reach, and it would be preferable for landlords to pay for projects in those instances.

Mason said tax breaks and incentives are available to businesses to make their spaces more accessible. She said other towns serve as examples of how community efforts toward accessibility have paid off. Steamboat Springs, for example, installed an elevator right off the sidewalk to make second-story offices more accessible.

Kiene said another program like the Accessible Communities Team could still succeed with a bit of restructuring. At one point, Community Connections and other ADA advocates talked to state legislators about making a similar program across the state.

“There is an interest in somehow supporting communities to be more accessible, supporting businesses to do the right thing, because I think we all know that running a business in a small mountain town is tough enough,” she said.

Llewellyn said business owners always have an appetite for making their buildings more accessible. But that can be difficult, given so many structures downtown were built in the 1800s, and business owner-landlord dynamics are another barrier.

“Businesses definitely want to accommodate everybody,” he said.


A previous version of this story gave the inaccurate impression that construction on ADA improvements is happening now. The improvements are currently in design, with construction scheduled for 2024 and 2025.

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