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Seeking to open eyes to downtown Rochester accessibility challenges

Work has been done to upgrade some areas, but gaps exist that create challenges for downtown navigation without sight.

Chris Mathews
Chris Mathews stands for a portrait in Peace Plaza on Thursday, June 30, 2022.
Tucker Allen Covey / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Moving through downtown can be challenging for Chris Mathews .

“It’s good in places, at times, but to the same degree, it’s frustrating at places, at times,” said the Rochester resident who is legally blind and relies on a cane to navigate the city on his own.

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Mathews, who has primarily lived downtown since 2020, has became comfortable enough with his surroundings to walk to his job at Mayo Field, find transportation to a second job in child care and even venture to Peace Plaza to play guitar.

However, as he seeks to broaden his understanding of the city’s core, he faces struggles, some of which he highlighted in a recent YouTube video and others that he said are likely the subject for future videos.

Mathews said there's a lack of local information related to navigating Rochester without sight, so his video is an attempt to spur discussions of what works and what doesn’t.

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“The initial thing that really kicked it off is the flashing lights by Cheap Charlies,” he said of a North Broadway Avenue crossing that was added with recent street upgrades. “They are going to get somebody killed, and that somebody has almost been me – twice.”

He said triggering the lights to alert drivers of a pedestrian crossing is helpful for sighted users but fails to help anyone who cannot tell whether cars are actually stopping.

Raising awareness

While the new crossing spurred the idea of using social media to raise awareness, Mathews’ first video highlights his walk to Mayo Field and a weekend trip through the subway and skyway system.

He said odd skyway angles and inconstant floor coverings in the interior spaces are just some of the things that make it difficult for someone with impaired vision to navigate.

Born prematurely at 26 weeks, Mathews was placed in an incubator with an excess of oxygen, which caused the blood vessels behind his eyes to burst, leaving his retinas permanently scarred and his vision extremely limited.

Mathews said he’s not issuing a call for big changes, but greater awareness and forethought.

“Don’t rebuild the skyways yet, because that’s a big project,” he said. “Start with making it obvious when you are in those good spaces and when you are not and make things consistent.”

He said simply finding consistent floor coverings to mark public and private spaces would help. Floor textures could also be used to identify when elevators or other amenities are near.

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His call has already gained attention.

Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency Executive Director Patrick Seeb said city and DMC staff have reached out to Mathews to start discussions.

“He’s the kind of person we are trying to add to the design processes that we are doing,” Seeb said, referring to new co-design efforts that enlist local residents to work alongside consulting designers on public projects.

He said DMC projects, including the nearly complete renovation of a portion of Peace Plaza and two blocks of First Avenue Southwest, have sought to go beyond complying with federal American with Disability standards by embracing a universal design that seeks to improve access for all people.

Peace Plaza
Details of pavers as part of the Peace Plaza artwork are seen on Monday, June 20, 2022, at Peace Plaza in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

And, he said the local officials continue to learn what works and what doesn’t.

“There are a lot of takeaways and a lot of lessons out of Peace Plaza that we are applying to Discovery Walk,” he said of the portion of Second Avenue Southwest between the Mayo Clinic and Soldiers Memorial Field. “Having a continuous ribbon of smooth surface is important, and we made that adjustment in the design of Discovery Walk.”

That idea is one that Mathews suggested in discussing the Peace Plaza renovation. He said his telescoping cane too often hits a paver or the raised lettering connected to the public art in the plaza. As a result, the cane retracts and must be adjusted.

He's not alone in trying to navigate the challenges.

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Northwest Rochester resident Dan Rogers said he uses a similar telescoping cane and understands how it could be a problem, but he didn’t experience the specific issue himself when visiting the site during construction earlier this year with Rochester City Council member Molly Dennis.

“I can see how that might happen, but I move slower, so the impact isn’t as jarring,” he said.

Plaza concerns

Dennis said she asked Rogers to join her on an early tour of the site to get the insight of someone with a visual impairment.

Rogers, who is 70, began losing his sight in his 20s and can only see changes in light.

Dennis said she believes the use of pavers, as well as the in-ground artwork near Peace Fountain, was a mistake created, in part, by failing to consider people with limited eyesight.

Truncated domes 1.jpg
Metal truncated domes at the right are used to mark where the sidewalk ends and street starts on the curbless portion of First Avenue Southwest.
Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin

“I believe those pavers will cause a lawsuit somewhere down the line or be taken out, and that will probably be at taxpayer expense,” she said.

Mathews’ suggestion is less drastic, voicing support for the artwork that he can’t fully see.

“I wish accessibility would have been worked into the piece in conjunction with the artist in a way that looked nice,” he said. “I don’t want them to just tack on a ramp because we need it. Make it look good. Make it part of what the plaza is, and make it a statement for Mayo.”

Seeb said the etched pavers were designed with sighted and visually impared users in mind.

“There was some intentionality that even people with sight impairment can experience that art, because they can feel it under their feet and they can feel it with their cane,” he said. “That’s part of the experience of that art, as opposed to being on a wall or in some other space.”

The DMC official said the jury is still out regarding whether the effort was successful, and the DMC EDA is in the process of conducting a post-installation evaluation of the renovated plaza

Rogers, whose plaza visit occurred while much of the area was fenced off, said he didn’t take specific issue with the pavers, but he did see a need for additional efforts to help people navigate the space and raised concerns about potential for trees or other elements to create unintended barriers above the ground his cane traces.

One thing he did appreciate was the use of a new texture to define where curbs were removed.

“They take out all the curbs nowadays for people with wheelchairs, so us blind folks don’t know where the sidewalk ends and the street begins,” he said. “Now they have that bumpy terrain instead of a curb, so we feel that. It’s almost like braille on the sidewalk.”

The bumps, known as “truncated domes” in the design word, are in place along the renovated street.

Mathews said they are also an example of how an adjustment can help address more than one need.

“The truncated domes that were originally designed to help wheelchairs, also help blind people align themselves and help moms with strollers get up the curb,” he said of the feature’s use in pedestrian ramps at crossings. “No one loses out in that scenario, unless they are aligned into the middle of the intersection, which happens a lot around here.”

Crossing concerns

The misalignment stems from old practices that created pedestrian ramps that fanned throughout the corner at an intersection, and Mathews said it leaves people with near total blindness without a clue regarding which direction to cross a street.

truncated two ways.jpg
Truncated domes at the intersection of First Avenue Southwest and Third Street can help point to the direction for crossing the street, while a fanned pedestrian ramp on the older southside of the street offers less guidance.
Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin

Rochester City Engineer Dillon Dombrovski said it’s a concern the city is seeking to address, along with a variety of other concerns at crossings and along sidewalks.

“It’s going to take over 20 years to finish all of it and get to where we want to be related to standards,” he said of current plans, but added that Rochester Public Works plans to present the City Council with options for accelerating efforts.

When it comes to new designs, Dombrovski said “bi-directional” pedestrian ramps – pointing directly across a street for each crossing option – are the preferred options when possible and today’s engineers are aware of the challenges found at older intersections.

Working conversations

While he hasn’t spoken with Mathews, Dombrovski said other conversations with local residents have helped Public Works staff improve their understanding of challenges that exist, even amid compliance with federal standards.

Among them is the current practice of avoiding color and texture changes in the middle of a sidewalk that match those used to highlight a curb or other feature.

Dombrovski said Rochester resident Edward Cohen pointed out how the design can confuse someone.

Changing textures.jpg
Sidewalk textures and colors that change in the middle of a path can provide a level of confusion for visually impaired pedestrians who rely on such features to mark when a sidewalk ends to is close to a roadway.
Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin

Cohen, who lives in the Historic Southwest Neighborhood, has mid-partial to high-partial blindness with no peripheral vision. He uses a cane and can struggle with subtle color changes in signs or pathways.

As a result, he said the texture changes and color changes can be the key to navigating, when used properly.

Edward Cohen
Edward Cohen, who is visually impaired, poses in front of construction barricades which are hard to maneuver on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, along 3rd Avenue Southwest in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

“Those two things alone can be very beneficial,” said Cohen, who recently served on the city’s co-design team to discuss potential changes along the Zumbro River east and west of the city-county Government Center.

He also points to emerging technology that continues to unfold, from talking crosswalks to passive receivers that could alert a smartphone to a nearby doorway, elevator or other amenity.

Mathews and Rogers both cited a desire for additional talking crosswalks, which are scattered throughout downtown and other parts of the city.

While Mathews said he’d like to see more intention installation of the crosswalk technology, Dombrovski said the city’s budget means the work is being done as signals are replaced.

“We’ve been able to add a lot of that to the community, but it’s not everywhere yet,” he said, pointing out that technology continues to advance, which means new crossings have updated features.

Finding their way

Cohen said a particular challenge he’s noticed in his trips downtown is the emerging construction, which was a concern echoed by Mathews and Rogers.

The all cited experiences with getting “lost” amid changing barriers or loud construction equipment that can disorient people who rely on sound to navigate.

Downtown construction
Construction closes a sidewalk on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

“Sometimes we just have to rely on the kindness of strangers, and they can be helpful if someone is around,” Rogers said.

Mathews and Cohen cited instances of being helped by construction workers when trapped in a changing landscape.

Dombrovski said the city strives to ensure pathways are open and indicators for changes exist when possible, but the ever-changing nature of construction can be a challenge, so he encourages people to call the Public Works right-of-way team whenever a clear path around construction isn’t obvious.

As for finding pathways after construction, Seeb said DMC and city planners continue to study options.

While wayfinding funds are already budgeted, he said the key is to make sure a consistent system is adopted to help visually impaired residents as much as visitors who struggle to read English.

“It’s been acknowledged that there is a need to upgrade the wayfinding, how people navigate through the city,” he said.

However, while the style of benches or plantings might change between public projects throughout downtown, Seeb said the goal is to find one consistent approach to helping people navigate among the unique spaces.

“It’s a really tough thing to get right in cities,” he said.

When adding places like the subway and skyway, where public and private spaces and budgets can overlap, unique challenges emerge, but Seeb said he believes local businesses will support change that fits the needs of residents and visitors.

“This is a community where private businesses are really sensitive to how they can be helpful to the community and visitors to Rochester,” he said.

He’s hoping conversations with Mathews and others can help.

While Mathews said he didn’t intend to call for direct change when he recorded his walk downtown, he said he’s glad it’s leading to the potential for better understanding of the challenges faced by people with impaired vision.

“The thing that stands out for me here (in downtown Rochester) is that the reason for things to be better is there, but there are a couple of areas where that hasn’t been followed up on,” he said.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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