Riford neighbors step up challenge over disabled access location

By Dave Schwab

Staff Writer

Neighbors are threatening legal action against the nonprofit running the Riford Center and the city if a decision to put wheelchair access on the side of the building on Bonair Street rather than in the front isn’t rescinded.

Bonair Street Neighborhood Group, which opposes Riford’s side ADA access plan, said it has retained the services of Theodore Pinnock, an attorney specializing in disabled access matters.

In a letter to Riford Board chair and attorney Glen Rasmussen, Pinnock presented his rationale, citing case law for why the ramp should be constructed at the front of the center at 6811 La Jolla Blvd.

He requested a response from Riford directors by Aug. 3, which was after the Light’s press time.

In a press release, Bonair Street Neighborhood Group said, “Wheelchair access can be easily achieved by constructing a ramp to the front door. The city has approved necessary right-of-way changes for this option. …”

The neighbors’ letter challenges the Riford board’s claim that the “side entrance will have little impact on the adjacent residential street. “This can only be true if it is not used,” the letter said.

Neighbors also contend “the board is fast‐tracking its proposal through the city permitting process without any public comment, bypassing the La Jolla Community Planning Association which normally vets such proposals. Changes in facade and right‐of‐way should be heard by the La Jolla PDO Committee for approval. … The RC Board has not consulted with the members of the facility, and has consistently refused requests by neighbors to put alternate views directly to the Board or members of the facility.”

Responding to the Bonair neighbors’ letter, Rasmussen said, “Over two years ago, we proposed to put one entrance at grade (without steps) for all persons on Bonair Street. They (neighbors) didn’t want that.”

Rasmussen said the Riford building currently does not conform to ADA-access requirements either for the existing steps in front or at the rear of the property off Bonair.

“The additional side entrance we are building provides ADA conformance as well as a new emergency exit, within virtually the same distance of travel,” he said. “It is a false statement of ADA law to say that a single entrance is required in an older building.”

“There’s no reasonable way to put the required wheelchair/walker entrance in the front,” continued Rasmussen. “Because of the way the building sits on the property, there would have to be demolition of the sidewalk, curb and narrowing of the street, which have far-reaching implications of cost and encroachments which gets us into a morass of permitting issues; plus that’s not our property, plus we don’t have a budget to do what they (neighbors) want. The solution we (Riford) have is 100 percent on our property and is 100 percent approvable, and we don’t get involved in any permit difficulties.”

When all is said and done, Rasmussen said, “We (Riford) sincerely do not believe there will be any negative impacts.”

Rasmussen said he sent the letter he received from Pinnock to the City Attorney’s Office for comment. Gina Coburn of the City Attorney’s office said their office will meet with city staff to discuss Riford issues.

Riford neighbor Liana Bowdler, a member of the group challenging the action, said they believe the $207,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds the Riford received for the ADA upgrades would be used to upgrade the front entrance serving the able-bodied, instead of being used “for major ADA upgrades catering to everyone, including disabled senior citizens.”

Another neighbor, Tricia Kaye, said Riford hasn’t considered how the sidewalk path of travel to the side entrance will be leveled.

“At the moment the slope is too steep in parts for wheelchairs, particular at the part near the corner — this is not only non-compliant with the ADA, it is dangerous,” she said. “But more importantly, I think it is important to look at this project from the point of view of a person in a wheelchair or with a walker — would you prefer to travel 70 feet or 170 feet?”

Mary Coakley and architect Don Goertz had presented a counterproposal for Riford ADA access calling for putting a ramp in at the front of the building on La Jolla Boulevard.

“If they’re going to remodel the front entry, they should also make it accessible for ADA persons,” said Goertz. “Having it on the side entrance, it’s still not going to be completely accessible. We’d like to see them go in and put in a front ramp and new stairs. We’d be glad to work with them.”

Pinnock well known for accessibility efforts

Theodore Pinnock is an attorney who’s found a niche seeking access for people with disabilities. Over the years, he’s filed hundreds of access lawsuits involving the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) against stores and businesses.

Signed into law on July 26, 1990, the act is a wide-ranging law intended to make American society more accessible to people with disabilities. The act has typically led public and private entities to comply by physically adapting their facilities putting in disabled ramps, rails in restrooms, etc.

Typically, businessowners receive a letter from Pinnock’s office alleging an ADA violation, anything from improper signage to improper dimensions for wheelchair access. Letters come with an offer to settle out of court for fees ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Pinnock made a sweep through La Jolla in June 2010 sending warning letters to two local businesses, WindanSea Veterinary Clinic and Kathleen Buoymaster Inc. interior designers. Both settled out of court.

Several years ago filing complaints against about 60 merchants in Julian’s commercial center. At least six settled suits out of court.