Wheels of steel
Cracked and beveled sidewalks, limited parking, traffic, few places to access the sidewalk from the street and a wealth of historic buildings constructed decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act conspire to make Park City’s Main Street a perilous place for David Nicholls.
"There’s not one disabled parking spot on Main Street, which is just ludicrous," Nicholls, a paraplegic, said. "It’s a challenge anyway that it is a hill. And if I park off Main Street, then I have to cross the street. It might be slippery. It might take me a little longer to get across and then here comes a car."
To make matters worse, the street has few ramps that lead smoothly from sidewalk to the road, accommodations known to engineers as curb cuts. Nicholls finds himself flying over curbs with groceries, books and dry cleaning bouncing on his lap. On the other side of the curb, Nicholls finds himself fenced into streets.
On Wednesday afternoon, Main Street was thick with traffic. Nicholls’ white Chevy Avalanche was just one more vehicle among delivery trucks, jeeps and sedans. After executing a U-turn that pointed his car north, heading down the street, Nicholls pulled up to the curb near the Hungry Moose. Unable to unload on the passenger side, he swung open the driver’s-side door into oncoming traffic, hooked the frame of his wheelchair with his wrist and lifted it across his body to the street a few feet below. Then he assembled the chair by sliding wheels onto the frame, angling the chair against the door to keep it from rolling away.
In one quick motion, he lifted his body and threw himself into the chair. His assist dog, Tacoma, barked in encouragement.
"Now the trick is to figure out how to get on the sidewalk," he mused. The nearest point of access was about 30 yards uphill. He trudged up the hill and onto the sidewalk. "There’s a couple places here I’d really like to go," he said, bumping past Bandits Bar and Grill and the shop Pine. He stopped in front of Bacchus Wine Bar and asks the clerk inside if they restaurant offers any way for him to come inside. The clerk said no and apologized.
"That’s OK," Nicholls grinned. "I was going to buy the joint."
Nicholls, known to local radio listeners as Diamond Dave, was paralyzed from the waist down and left with limited dexterity in his fingers and hands after a ski accident five years ago. A snowboarder collided with him on Big Bear Mountain in California, where he worked as a professional ski instructor.
At the time of the accident, he and other instructors were practicing turning drills that required them to traverse the mountain with wide, loose turns. "I thought a snowmobile hit me," he remembered over a plate of sausage, eggs and a pancake at breakfast. "It was like ridiculous, crazy whiplash."
Medics estimated that the snowboarder careened into Nicholls at 70 mph. It was enough force to shatter three vertebrae in his lower back and render him unable to move his legs.
The accident has slowed Nicholls, but it hasn’t dampened his competitive drive. Nicholls moved to Park City in September 2007 after coaches at the National Ability Center recruited him to play rugby and hockey from his chair. "What really caught my eye was the first adaptive bobsled team in the world," Nicholls said.
A pilot on the team, Nicholls steered his team’s sled faster than an able-bodied Jamaican team last year.
Nicholls is strong, with thick forearms and a broad chest. He said he worries about accessibility not only for himself, but also for the elderly and other Park City residents confined to wheelchairs.
"Most guys in chairs wouldn’t be able to do what I do because they wouldn’t have as much strength," he explained. "I’ve seen young guys and young gals struggling to push their parents up the hill. If there were more handicapped spots, they still have to push up or down Main Street, but it wouldn’t be as far if there were one spot toward the bottom, one in the middle, one toward the top. Currently, that doesn’t exist."
Main Street isn’t the only locale in Park City that requires ingenuity for people in wheelchairs. Accessible parking stalls in City Park, Prospector Square and the Town Lift parking structure are rife with error, Nicholls said. The city’s building code requires accessible parking spaces to be clearly marked with signs. It also requires 60-inch access aisles adjacent to the spot and adjoined to an accessible route.
Follow Nicholls around town and his plight isn’t hard to decipher. He pulled into a handicapped spot outside the entrance to the Flying Sumo Wednesday only to discover that a giant concrete wall obstructed his path.
Some accessible spots are poorly marked. Many lack aisles for loading and unloading, and when spots do have the aisles required by to building rules, they are on the passenger’s side, not the driver’s side. Nicholls could only crack his door open about six inches, let alone assemble his chair and roll to a point of access.
"Whoever put these in, they don’t believe disabled people can drive cars because the stripes are always on the passenger side, if there are stripes."
"Believe it or not, disabled people do spend money," he continued. "They do like to eat. They do go to stores. They do go to the bars. They do like to have fun."
City rules don’t require painted access aisles on both sides of a parking space space, according to Ron Ivie, chief building official for Park City. He said a driver could back into a stall or angle his vehicle over the striped aisle and use the stall itself for loading and unloading.
As far as merchant access, some buildings, especially historic structures, are exempt from most accessibility regulations because they are considered existing conditions. Unlike new developments and major remodels, structures built before 1992, when the Americans with Disabilities Act passed into law, are not required to comply with modern-day accessibility codes.
That means that while businesses are required to provide equal access and services to people in wheelchairs, not all businesses are required to be fully accommodating. Renovations must be technically feasible, according to law, and shops smaller than 3,000 square feet are exempt from some accessibility standards.
Existing conditions also take into account topographic factors, like the steepness of Main Street.
"We couldn’t flatten Main Street, for example," Ivie explained. "But you should be able to be get equivalent service in areas that are accessible."
Equivalent service means not only that a person in a wheelchair has access to a restaurant, for example, but that they not be stuck back by the kitchen rather than being in the dining room.
In the case of Main Street, the dearth of amenities for visitors in wheelchairs has been intentional.
"We don’t have very good curb cuts on Main Street because we haven’t been trying to encourage [handicapped] people to go to Main Street," Ivie said.
The reason is safety. The street is about twice as steep as law deems prudent for people in wheelchairs. It is slick with ice and piled with snow for the winter months and unloading wheelchairs and equipment in the street is not always prudent.
"We don’t want to put people out in traffic. It is, at times, not safe for people in wheelchairs," he said.
People in wheelchairs may not be able to climb the steepness of the street or negotiate its tight spaces. They also have a lower profile and are harder for passing cars and trucks to spot.
"That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things to be done," Ivie said. "The challenge each year is for dollars, so if people come forward and make their issues known, we’ll have a better idea of where to put the money."
Ivie pointed to promising efforts on the part of city builders and private-sector developers as signs of progress.
"We’ve come a long way in the last 15 years," he said. "Most Main Street businesses have done some accommodation, but not complete accommodation."
No Name Saloon installed a wheelchair-accessible bathroom, for example, and Harry O’s, added an elevator. City Hall is in the grip of a massive renovation to make it seismically sound and wheelchair accessible.
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