Think your property is exempt from the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) because of its age? Think again! There is no grandfather clause under Title III of the ADA for buildings defined as public accommodations; in other words, properties that were built before ADA enactment in 1990 are not exempt from its requirements. All places of public accommodation must remove barriers where removal is readily achievable.
Even properties that are significant enough to be a “historic property” are not exempt from the ADA; although there are some exceptions. The passing of the ADA made access to places of public accommodation a civil right, and no public accommodations are excluded.
First, we should define “historic properties” as they relate to the ADA. When it comes to ADA exceptions, properties qualify as historic only if
- They are listed on the National Register of historic places;
- They are eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places;
- Or, they are designated as historic properties under state or local law.
If your property is a designated historic property it is important to take active steps to conserve the historic nature of the building, while also providing accessibility to those who need it. The National Parks Service released Preservation Brief 32 which introduces and provides guidance on how to integrate accessibility with a historic property. Important steps introduced in the Brief include:
- Reviewing the historical significance of the property and identifying all of the character defining features.
- Completing an accessibility assessment to identify items that do not comply with the ADA Standards.
- Evaluating options to correct non-compliant items while being sensitive to the historic character of the building.
If you believe it is not technically infeasible to meet current ADA Standards without threatening or destroying the historic significance of a building, you must consult with your State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO). If your SHPO agrees, certain exceptions may be acceptable. The exceptions could fall under one or all of the three main categories:
Accessible Routes Exception: Generally, the ADA requires that accessible routes are available from all accessible parking spaces, public streets and sidewalks, and public transportation stops. The Accessible Routes Exception requires only one accessible route from a site arrival point to an accessible entrance. Also, instead of connected access routes between all levels and stories of a building, designated historic properties may have just one accessible route on the same level as the accessible entrance.
Entrances Exception: On a designated historic property, the accessible entrance may be an unlocked entrance that is not used by the general public, or a locked entrance with some kind of notification system. Your accessible entrance may not have to be the main entrance.
Toilet Facilities Exception: At designated historic properties, only one accessible restroom is required, and it may be a uni- gender facility.
If, even with the above exceptions, removing accessibility barriers would threaten or destroy the historic significance of the building, other programmatic means of accessibility may be acceptable. These exceptions and alternative methods should be studied and implemented on a case by case basis. Property owners who believe that removing barriers would jeopardize the historic significance of their building must consult with their SHPO to determine whether they may use alternative methods for their historic properties.
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Regardless of whether or not properties are designated historic properties, all existing places of public accommodation must remove barriers where readily achievable and comply with the ADA to the maximum extent feasible. The extent of modifications required will vary greatly between properties. Through an accessibility survey, an accessibility consultant can help you identify the least invasive approach to compliance to assure that your historic building retains its character while allowing everyone to enjoy it.