The Sunken Garden at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul will become fully accessible again.
On Thursday, Como Park officials confirmed plans to install wheelchair ramps in place of the spotty custom lifts that seemed to be out of order more than in. After years of hit-or-miss access for people with limited mobility to the garden's oasis of warmth and color, officials confirmed that ramps will work in the space.
"We're close. We have four concepts. We have a preferred concept," said Michelle Furrer, director of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. "The challenge is we have two years of weddings booked. We're going to try to squeeze this work in between ceremonies."
Officials had worried that installing ramps would mean the loss of about 25% of garden space or the need to raise the entire garden. But the project's architect has reassured them that ramps can work in the existing space, including where the elevators are located.
More than $314,000 from the city's Capital Improvement Budget has been allocated for the project, Furrer said. Engineering designs and construction plans are next. Then the work.
After years of limited access to one of Como Park's most popular features, an end is in sight. That makes Grant McNeely, a volunteer whose family has supported the building's upkeep, very happy.
"The bottom line is that we're going to get it done. It needs to be done. And it's going to be available to more people," McNeely said.
Two custom wheelchair elevators, one on either side of the main stairway into the Sunken Garden, were installed decades ago to make the lush space accessible. But for much of that time, the heat and humidity of the space led to chronic breakdowns.
"Because they were custom-built, every time we have had an issue, it's a custom fix," Furrer said.
The result: The lifts have been unavailable for long stretches of time. That's unacceptable, David Fenley told the Star Tribune in April. The Americans with Disabilities Act director at the Minnesota Council on Disability said then that supply chain issues are not a valid excuse.
"If replacement parts are not available, it's your responsibility to replace [the elevators] and make it accessible," Fenley said.
In late 2017, the Parks and Recreation Department produced a multimillion-dollar ADA transition plan identifying dozens of improvements needed to bring facilities into compliance with the 1990 law. All public entities with more than 50 employees were required under the ADA to have transition plans in place by July 26, 1992, but the department had no such plan in place for more than 20 years.
The conservatory is not the only attraction at Como Park with accessibility issues, Furrer acknowledged. Earlier this week, officials hosted members of the Minnesota Senate Bonding Committee. The zoo's cat building, which has an elevator on one side, recently had to close a bridge to that side because of repairs, leaving the facility inaccessible to those unable to climb stairs.
Furrer said officials are making a 2024 bonding request of $22 million, which will also make the building fully accessible.