Updated Oct. 25, 11:30 a.m.
The wheelchair-accessible entrance at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s main branch is hidden at the back of the palatial Beaux-Arts building. The ramp on Wood Street is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is newly surrounded by curb cuts and painted lines.
More often than not, it’s also surrounded by cars.
Cars blocking the sidewalk, cars blocking the roadway — there are sometimes enough cars crammed on the one-way street that you’d think it was a low-key auto show instead of an entrance to one of the city’s main cultural hubs.
On most days when the building is open, parked vehicles stretch up and down the block, squatting the width of the pedestrian pathways. Trying to access the building’s sole ADA entrance from one direction frequently forces people into the middle of the street to get there.
Unless you can’t continue along the street, because that too is blocked by a delivery or other vehicle, like the UPS truck seen on a recent Tuesday morning visit.
Philadelphia’s population with mobility issues is the largest among large cities in the U.S., relatively speaking — nearly 13% of residents, according to 2016 U.S. Census data. What’s expected of library patrons with disabilities?
Alix Gerz, vice president of communications for the Free Library, said there is a stretch of the sidewalk that will always be car-free.
Visitors who want a clear path need to approach the entrance from 20th Street — i.e. opposite the direction of traffic flow on Wood Street. That 100 feet or so on the southwestern side of the block “is to remain clear of vehicles,” Gerz said.
Multiple sources told Billy Penn most of the parked cars belong to library staffers. Asked if that was the case, Gerz said that, while this block is designated as a private street, the library is “in the process of revising parking policies.” There is already a surface parking lot on Wood Street, and Gerz added that at least one spot on Wood Street is permanently designated for handicapped parking. Parking conditions change day to day depending on events and other happenings at the branch.
To members of the community of people with disabilities, it’s a slight that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Nancy Salandra, a director at advocacy group Liberty Resources, said the library roadway “should not be blocked, period,” and called it just another sign of a government beset by failures around accessibility compliance.
“It’s 29 years after the ADA, really? ” Salandra said. “Our city is so far behind, and you have the largest disabled population in the country. They could care less about this community.”
‘Major issues’ are still under review
Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration is currently finishing up a survey of about 500 government properties to measure them against ADA guidelines and identify necessary fixes, officials said.
Though figure has not been finalized, more than 30 buildings have been identified as “top priority,” meaning they need major construction to create an up-to-code accessible route, according to Saron McKee, director of ADA compliance for the city.
“There are some major issues we need to work on,” McKee told Billy Penn. “We’re looking at about 500 different facilities you have everything from ‘this facility only needs to have signage’ to ‘this facility needs a complete remodel’ to ‘this facility needs to be torn down and start over.’”
McKee would not name any of the properties under review, and it’s unclear where the library’s Parkway Central Branch falls on the spectrum. The results of the survey won’t be ready for public release until 2020, she said.
In Philadelphia’s unrelenting parking wars, government employees have historically been fond of carving themselves out of the rulebook.
Just look to the battle over parking on City Hall’s apron. For years, politicos had carte blanche to post up their vehicles on the building’s pedestrian doorstep. Critics kept up the pressure or years until Kenney put the kibosh on the long-held entitlement after he took office in 2016.
The city’s disabled population navigates obstacles like these on the daily, advocates say. Some are inconveniences, other closer to injustices. Liberty Resources is one of three disability advocacy groups suing the city in federal court over the state of its sidewalks. The lawsuit claims walkways are “dilapidated, disintegrating, and teeming with obstructions, making everyday travel difficult and dangerous for the estimated 186,000 people with disabilities that call Philadelphia home.”
Among other things, the suit specifically cites cars as common curbside obstructions. Advocates have observed them sitting on sidewalks for long periods of time without any repercussions, and government buildings are among the offenders.
Curb compliance? Philly is reviewing it
How red is the flag is over parking at the Free Library’s central branch?
Federal ADA policies stipulate that municipalities make “reasonable modification requests” to grant access to people with disabilities. McKee would not say how high of a priority the library’s de facto sidewalk parking lot was, or what recommendations the city would make for better compliance at the facility. Those will come out next year with the survey’s release.
“The library is committed to meeting and exceeding requirements,” McKee said. “Right now we haven’t completed that [review] process. We’re still working on it.”
Gerz, at the library, acknowledged that management has received complaints about accessibility to the facility.
“We have received occasional comments about accessibility as it relates to Parkway Central, which we absolutely understand,” Gerz said. “This historic building was not constructed with an eye towards accessibility and updating takes significant time.”
Salandra of Liberty Resources acknowledged recent improvements had been made to the building as a whole, but said they did not rise to what she feels is appropriate for people with mobility issues.
“We’re still stuck around the back,” Salandra said of the ADA-accessible entry. With the added parking issue, she called the situation “ridiculous — especially when it’s dark. You could just be stuck.”