Wheels of misfortune: In November, the U.S. government fined Barolo Grill for violating Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act. That's a short summary of a convoluted case that's left a bitter taste around town.
Much of the restaurant community is now disgusted with the ADA, Denver citizens with disabilities are disgusted with Barolo, and Barolo owner Blair Taylor is disgusted, period--not to mention poorer.
Taylor, who owns Chives, expanded his Sixth Avenue restaurant empire in 1992 when he bought what was then Biba, a restaurant owned by Regas Cristo. In December of that year, Taylor, without pulling permits, built a raised platform--the better for seeing and being seen--in the back of what he'd renamed Barolo Grill.
Soon after the construction was completed, however, an attorney with the Department of Justice showed up and told Taylor he was in violation of several ADA codes and that a complaint had been filed by the Atlantis Community, a local service organization for people with disabilities. That set into motion more than a year of negotiations, charges, countercharges and general confusion. At one point, as Taylor tried to come into compliance with the federal regulations, he ran into trouble with conflicting city regulations, particularly over the handicapped-access ramp.
The federal government filed suit, and Taylor finally settled out of court late in 1994. The total cost to Taylor, including renovations to bring the restaurant into compliance, fines, legal fees and a party he's required to throw to tell the world about ADA: close to $75,000.
Taylor says he isn't as upset about the money as he is with the way the whole situation was handled. The government was pretty offensive in its initial contacts, he says, and both sides apparently let their emotions take over in a situation that should have been fairly cut-and-dried. Although Taylor let too much time go by before making promised alterations, the feds should have let up when he ran into trouble with the city.
"I'm now the poster boy for ADA compliance," complains Taylor. But Kate Nicholson, an attorney with the Justice Department, maintains that Taylor wasn't prosecuted merely as a warning to other restaurateurs. An executive order prohibits the department from filing lawsuits until "extensive efforts have been made to negotiate and negotiations turn out to be hopeless," she explains, "which is what happened in the case of Barolo." Although Nicholson says other restaurants need not fear receiving the same treatment, she adds that her department is looking closely at Denver: "The city has a lot of people with disabilities, because it is one of the most accessible cities in the country."
Which is why people such as Pamela Carter, a plaintiff in the Barolo case who was awarded $1,500 because of the "humiliation" suffered when she couldn't get into the restaurant, wants to stay in Denver. "Most of the places in this city have been wonderful about fixing inaccessibility," she says. And Carter's own recent, hip-breaking fall in a motel bathroom that lacked handrails is an example of why the ADA is so important.
But Carter also offers another, more practical reason to comply with ADA codes: "We are people, too, and we are people with money. Restaurants should start looking at us as a whole new market.
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