Architects and builders to pay more than $1 million to settle federal accessibility suit in Evanston, Ill.

The designers and developers of an Evanston, Illinois apartment complex will pay at least $1 million to correct defects in the complex’s construction and settle a lawsuit charging them with discrimination against persons with physical disabilities. The September settlement resolves a December 2001 Justice Department lawsuit based on the investigative work of Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, a disability rights group. Access Living and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois discovered numerous inaccessible features at Park Evanston, a 24-story luxury high-rise.

Harry Weese Associates, Park Evanston’s architects, will pay $900,000 to retrofit apartments in the high-rise. The John Buck Company, who developed the site, will pay for
and perform the work for retrofitting inaccessible features. The total retrofitting costs are expected to exceed $1 million and could take up to five years to complete. The defendants will also pay into a $50,000 victims’ fund to identify disabled persons who could not move into Park Evanston, $40,000 for Access Living’s attorneys fees and costs, and a $13,600 civil penalty. According to the United States Department of Justice, this $1 million settlement was the largest fair housing accessibility settlement involving a single apartment building.

During its investigation into Park Evanston, which was built in 1997, Access Living found multiple violations of the Fair Housing Act’s accessibility provisions. Bathroom and bedroom doors were too narrow for wheelchair users, bathrooms and kitchens did not have maneuvering space for wheelchair users, and thermostats were placed too high for persons with physical disabilities.

The John Buck Company attempted to place the blame on the architects. In court documents, the company claimed that architects are  responsible to design buildings in compliance with accessibility laws. Kent Swanson, a John Buck Company partner, told the Chicago Tribune that his firm hoped to complete the retrofits prior to the five-year deadline.

“As this settlement demonstrates, it can be   extremely expensive to go back and make housing accessible after a building is completed,”  U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois Patrick J. Fitzgerald said at a press conference to announce the settlement.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joan Laser added, “The cost is negligible if you design it right from the beginning, and now they’re having to spend more than $1 million.”

Karen Tamley, a program director at Access Living, raised the settlement as one that will make developers take notice of what will happen if they fail to design and build
accessible housing. She told the Chicago Sun Times that the settlement “definitely opens the market for the mobility impaired.” She added, “It sends the message to developers
and designers that this is the law and you have to comply with it.”

Marca Bristo, the president and CEO of Access Living, said that the “lack of acceptable, affordable housing” is one of the largest obstacles disabled persons face. “Full
independence for our community will not be achieved until we have housing options on par with non-disabled citizens,” she added.

From the October 2002 Advocate