Part one of a three-part series

His stage persona is that of one mean hombre, so it was surprising to see Hollywood tough guy Clint Eastwood before Congress earlier this year seeking protection from a 10-year-old. But fans of Dirty Harry should take solace knowing that Eastwood’s adversary has brought literally thousands of others to their knees during its brief existence on the national landscape.

As witnessed by the large showing of support in Washington, D.C., last week celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the sweeping civil rights legislation has as many fans – or perhaps more – as it does detractors. Either way, the law has certainly changed the commercial real estate world forever, acknowledge industry observers.

Mark Wales, a Louisiana architect who serves as an ADA expert for the American Institute of Architects, said last week that the law has had a major effect on the way architects do business. But while insisting that the profession is dedicated to universal access in its designs, Wales maintains that the vagueness of the legislation’s language often makes it difficult to follow.

“The ADA can be very confusing,” Wales told Banker & Tradesman. “Right now, the only way an architect knows he has not met the law is when an action is taken against him.”

In the case of Eastwood, for example, the actor was sued for failing to make his hotel in Carmel, Calif., ADA compliant. Eastwood appeared before Congress to testify in favor of a measure which would give a property owner 90 days before legal action could be taken against them, the latest in a series of efforts to alter the measure.

Thus far, however, pro-ADA support has thwarted attempts to make substantial changes. According to Wales and several other people who attended last week’s extensive ceremonies in Washington feting the 10th anniversary, backers of the law far outweighed those who feel it has gone too far. Wales attended one hearing on the law and said nearly all of the comments were favorable.

Indeed, even those who have issues with the ADA acknowledge that it has made substantial progress in improving the built environment. “It has entered the lexicon of the profession, and at that level, everybody knows about it and deals with it,” said Boston architect Roger Goldstein. “People are simply integrating [accessibility] into the way they work.”

Goldstein said that the federal law has had less of an impact in the Bay State, which has had state accessibility regulations in place since the 1970s. However, he said the enforcement mechanism, run via the United States Department of Justice, has at times been “disruptive and confusing.”

State Regulations
One of the big battles at present is whether the federal government should allow state regulations such as those found in Massachusetts to serve as the local model. Due to differences between the ADA and state statutes, Wales said architects occasionally are caught between the two. In one recent instance in Texas, the DOJ certified the state code as the prevailing guideline, then turned around and sued a cinema operator who met those regulations but not the ADA.

“State certification has not proven very helpful to us,” Wales said. “If you do everything right and still get sued, that situation does not lead to much confidence in the process.”

There have been efforts to make the Massachusetts regulations the dominant code, but Goldstein said it would first require some changes at the state Legislature, and lawmakers have yet to approve any alterations. For the time being, Goldstein said, “you really have to look at the two of them together.”

Another problem, according to Wales, is that there are too many federal agencies involved in administering the ADA, with the U.S. Architectural Access Board charged with promulgating the regulations, but the DOJ with enforcing the law.

“They can give you technical assistance, but if the U.S. Access Board is doing training and the DOJ doesn’t unequivocally back what the access board is saying, it really loses its punch,” Wales said. “Nothing that the access board says is binding.”

For the most part, Massachusetts has avoided the high-profile lawsuits that have emanated from the ADA, although the architect for the Fleet Center was sued two years ago for not making the arena compliant. Access board spokesman David Yanchulis added that he believes the ADA has not been as onerous as it might appear when nuisance cases such as the lawsuit against Eastwood are aired.

“It’s not hard to find some ADA [stories] out there that [imply] it’s going too far, but there is a lot of good happening under the law that doesn’t get as much press as the negative cases,” said Yanchulis. “In any civil rights legislation, you are going to have a mixed bag of actions, but overall, [the ADA] has been a very favorable thing.”

Even so, Yanchulis acknowledged that many feel changes are needed in the law, and his board has been holding hearings nationally and inviting comment on how a new set of guidelines should be created. The lengthy effort has stretched on for years, but Yanchulis said his group hopes to have the new version in place by next July.

Real estate groups such as the AIA and the Building Owners and Managers Association are strongly backing the revisions, submitting comments and attempting to get their memberships involved. The AIA, meanwhile, is imploring the DOJ to “provide greater clarity and certainty in the ADA,” said R.K. Stewart, a member of the AIA Accessibility Task Force.

“Architects are committed to designing accessible facilities and public spaces, but will continue to find it difficult to do so until the DOJ provides clear and certain guidelines,” said Stewart, an architect for Gensler Assoc. in San Fransisco.

Now Celebrating 10th Year, ADA Has Adherents, Critics

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min