Architects: How Would You Make ‘City Hall Accessible for All?’

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Citizens work together to carry a dolly up the steps of City Hall.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Citizens work together to carry a dolly up the steps of City Hall.

San Antonio City Hall was built about 127 years ago in the center of Military Plaza, local philanthropist and developer Gordon Hartman told reporters Tuesday.

“Twenty years ago the [Americans with Disabilities Act] was passed,” Hartman said. “But 2018 will be the year we make City Hall accessible for all.”

The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation has put up $20,000 in prize money for a design competition – launched Tuesday – that will transform the way people of all abilities approach City Hall. Currently people who use wheelchairs, walkers, canes, or have other mobility issues must go around to the back of the building and enter a steep and narrow walkway that leads to a basement elevator.

The only entrance to City Hall for people in wheelchairs is a ramp entrance on the south side of the building that leads to the basement elevator. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report

The only entrance to City Hall for people in wheelchairs is a ramp entrance on the south side of the building that leads to the basement elevator.

“This is way overdue,” said Hartman, who created Morgan’s Wonderland, a fully-accessible theme park for children with special needs and their families. He estimated that anywhere from 150,000-200,000 San Antonians couldn’t walk up City Hall’s stairs or would at least need assistance.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) led the year-long charge to formulate the competition, which is the third of its kind in a partnership between the City and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The first two produced designs for Stinson Airfield Control Tower and the new San Antonio river barges. This competition is open to professional and student architectural/design teams, and there is a $175 entry fee.

Click here to download the Call for Entry package. The City of San Antonio and H-E-B are each contributing $10,000 to AIA San Antonio to manage the competition.

The steps to City Hall are a “bridge between citizens and their government,” Treviño said. “This is a civil rights issue.”

Judith L. Babbitt, the City’s first accessibility compliance manager, passed away last year after medical complications. Treviño said he hopes City Hall’s new entrance can reflect her dedication to “universal design” and that submitted proposals go beyond the minimum ADA requirements.

“We believe that access to good design is a fundamental right that should be afforded to all,” AIA San Antonio President Adam Reed said. “This design competition challenges entrants to find a creative, innovative solution to open the front door of City Hall to all. We hope to receive entries that address more than just minimum required standards, so that our city can be seen as a place where solutions are in turn statements.”

Registration for the competition opened today and closes on April 3. AIA San Antonio will host a mandatory pre-submittal conference in the Municipal Plaza Building on April 17. Proposals are due by 4 p.m. on June 30. An open house is scheduled for July 17 so the public can provide input on the entries, but the winner will be decided by a panel of jurors that includes State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), historic preservation architect Jeffrey Fetzer, Sharon Fleming of the Texas Historical Commission, registered accessibility specialist Peter Grojean, and special needs community representative Todd Hargroder.

The winner will be announced on Aug. 16, if all goes according to schedule. Officials hope that the new design will be approved by the Historic and Design Review Commission and City Council in time for the new entrance to be built by 2018 – in time to become a “Tricentennial gift to San Antonio,” Reed said.

The changes to City Hall’s entrance will be semi-permanent, said local architect and conservationist Sue Ann Pemberton, so as to preserve the existing historic structure and allow for future modifications.

When dealing with historic buildings, you need to take a “light touch,” she said.

Pemberton is director of UTSA’s Center for Architectural Engagement and led a team of students that measured and mapped out the existing structure’s schematics for applicants to review.

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