The Colfax Center Deli enjoyed a brisk business during its three years at 1245 East Colfax. Located just south of Columbia Presbyterian/St. Luke's Medical Center and St. Joseph Hospital and across the street from the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (CCDC), the deli and its owners, Michael Roberts and Daniel Dufresne, got a lot of support from wheelchair-bound customers.
So when their landlords told them they needed to vacate last spring to make way for a building renovation, Roberts and Dufresne acted fast to secure space in a new building a few blocks away, at 1510 Humboldt Street.
The pair also acted fast -- too fast, as it turned out -- to build a wheelchair ramp for their loyal clientele.
Their previous location had featured a flat entry through the rear door, but the new building wasn't wheelchair-accessible. So Roberts and Dufresne hired an architect to draw up plans for the ramp and contractor Tom Mabery to build it in time for the deli's June 3 reopening. The result was a handsome wooden ramp with a lattice running up one side.
Building the ramp cost $6,000 -- half of the deli's moving budget -- and it meant the loss of twenty seats on the outdoor patio, but Roberts says he never even considered not doing it. "Deny access to the people who supported us?" he asks. "Probably twenty people a day use our ramp and compliment us on it. It was a moral decision."
"They're all completely happy with the ramp," says Dufresne. "I have a niece in a wheelchair. She loves it."
Staff members of CCDC, a disability-rights organization, who grab their lunch at the deli fairly often and even hold meetings there, planned to give the deli an award for its ramp, says CCDC executive director Julie Reiskin. "[It's] one of the most awesome we've seen."
The City of Denver, however, was less enthusiastic.
According to the city's building code, the landings on wheelchair ramps must be at least sixty inches by sixty inches -- adequate space for a rider to turn and ascend or descend. This is the same standard dictated by the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.
Colfax Center Deli's ramp was only fifty inches by fifty inches, and the city ordered Roberts and Dufresne to fix it before they could receive their certificate of occupancy. The ramp also violated city code because it didn't have metal handrails up both sides and it lacked a horizontal beam to cap the vertical metal rods that serve as a "fence" between the ramp and the wall (there's about a foot of space between them).
Reiskin is quick to defend her favorite deli. The city's nitpicking "really made me angry," she says. "There are a lot of real violators in town. [The city] needs to spend their time on them."
Exemptions are occasionally granted if the building plans are only a few inches off city code, says Frank Nelson, executive director of the city's Commission on People With Disabilities. But ten inches was too much of a difference, he maintains, especially since some people in motorized scooters can't negotiate a landing of less than sixty inches.
"There have been people in scooters who have made it in there, and they haven't had any problem," Reiskin responds. "It's not like [the city] got a complaint."
Nelson takes issue with the coalition's criticism. "The folks that are saying this are suing other people because they don't build [ramps] to code," he says, referring to a federal suit brought by the CCDC against inaccessible businesses in Larimer Square. The suit was later dismissed, but the coalition plans to file an appeal.
Nelson, who uses a wheelchair, says he is aware of every non-compliant place in town, but unless a business applies for a building permit to make changes, he says, "I can't lay any kind of a city law on them."
"The city tends to err on the side of strong compliance," says Jean Batchelder, owner of a Loveland accessibility consulting firm called Access by Design. "Maybe that's not always the best thing for small businesses. My perspective is, if it's usable, do it." She notes that the ADA requirements are flexible if a business makes a good-faith effort to provide accessibility. "I hate to see a business trying to do the right thing end up with problems over it. It's just not good."
Under the ADA, which regulates accessibility in public places, small businesses do not need to be wheelchair-accessible if compliance is not "readily achievable." But CCDC members say that half of the small businesses along their stretch of Colfax choose to provide adequate access on their own, either with a ramp or a flat entry.
"We need that ramp, 'cause we need that business," says Roberts. "We tried to do the right thing."
Unfortunately, Mabery never received a permit from the city prior to construction. Roberts says the city's issue "isn't so much with us; their issue is with the general contractor. My guy built the ramp before the city approved it."
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Mabery would not say whether he knew the ramp was out of compliance when he built it, claiming the whole issue is a private matter. "It is not out of compliance," is all he would say before hanging up.
Nevertheless, on August 20, Mabery returned and notched a foot or so out of the corner of the landing, bringing it into compliance; he also topped the metal fence. Although the handrails remain unfinished, so far the city has not threatened to close the deli.
Roberts is frustrated by the entire situation, but he understands that the city officials are just doing their job. "I'm not so pigheaded that I can't see everybody's point," he says.
Dufresne says more wryly, "I think they're being the city."