Monday, October 20, 2008

New YMCA building lacks wheelchair access

From the Greenwich Time in Connecticut:

Luis Gonzalez-Bunster is training for a marathon in January. With the winter months approaching, he wants to use the Greenwich Family YMCA's Olympic-sized swimming pool, part of a new state-of-the-art facility.

The only thing standing in his way is the staircase at the building's entrance.

The 50 East Putnam Ave. facility lacks entrance ramps, which presents a problem for the wheelchair-bound Gonzalez-Bunster.

When Gonzalez-Bunster's sister, Carolina, visited the YMCA for him, she quickly realized that although everything inside the new facility was wheelchair accessible, there was no way for him to get into the building.

"It just didn't make sense," she said.

Eighteen years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, the 96-year-old building, which is still undergoing massive renovations, is not wheelchair accessible, according to Tim Wagner, YMCA director of real estate and building operations.

Making the building accessible was one of the major aims of the $36.5 million expansion, started in 2004 and scheduled to be complete by June 2009, said Ashleigh Rowe, Greenwich Family YMCA's director of public relations.

"It is part of [the YMCA's] original proposal, to provide accessibility, they just haven't completed that part," said William Marr, town building inspector.

The new pool, one of the YMCA's most popular features, opened in November 2007 with a temporary certificate of occupancy issued by the town building department. A temporary certificate of occupancy is often issued when it is requested by the owner, or architect, but this was an unusual circumstance, Marr said. Because the facility is being built in phases, it is taking much longer than had been planned for, he said.

"This has been a very long, somewhat complicated, renovation project, so the (temporary certificate of occupancy) is a little longer than usual," he said

The YMCA is two-thirds done, and once completed, the entranceway will be accessible and there will be many benefits for anyone who has a disability or uses a wheelchair, Wagner said, including a chair lift, elevator and handicap locker room.

"We are committed to meeting the needs of everyone in the community and welcoming anyone with a disability who uses a wheelchair into our facility," he said.

Stan Kosloski, project director of the disability advocate network Connecticut Disability Advocacy Collaborative, said he's never heard of a portion of a new building opening without being wheelchair accessible.

"I think it's both a building-code issue and the ADA would require accessibility," he said. "If it is open to the public, then it has to be wheelchair accessible."

New buildings are required to be ADA compliant and provide wheelchair accessibility, particularly major community centers like the YMCA with a membership of about 5,600, according to Carol Kana, disability advocate and Greenwich resident.

"These things should not be happening," she said.

Citing safety concerns near the construction site, the YMCA of Greenwich is not considering building a ramp until the facility is complete, Wagner said.

If the YMCA wanted to install a ramp before the June 2009 target date, however, the town would approve the project, Marr said.

"A temporary ramp has been before and can be used in this situation. That wouldn't be a problem with us," Marr said.

In the meantime, the YMCA's spacious pool is tantalizingly close, yet out of reach, for Luis Gonzalez-Bunster. Not only is the facility near his home, it is one of the premier facilities in the area, he said.

"It's such a gorgeous facility," he said. "It's a bit unfair and it's wrong."

He encountered this problem years before when he and his family took a movie theater in Greenwich to court over the need to install a wheelchair lift.

"You have to just make people aware and try to get them to change it," he said.

Gonzalez-Bunster still hopes to be able to use it, even if the YMCA doesn't end up building a ramp, he said.

"If worse comes to worse, I'll have someone carry me in," he said. "I need to swim, and that's where I want to go."