'Accessibility is a top priority:' Project at Cardinal Stadium tackles many problems

Photo of Ken Borsuk

GREENWICH — When Board of Education member Joe Kelly took on the task of overseeing the $4.7 million multi-phase project to install new bleachers and provide major upgrades to Cardinal Stadium, he knew that the lack of accessibility has been a problem for spectators with disabilities who just wanted to catch a game at Greenwich High.

“More times than I want to say, I would get call from a family about an older person or a disabled person who wanted to sit in the bleachers,” said Kelly, who was the longtime coach of the rugby team. “They would come an hour or so and maybe even two hours before the game so we could carry them up into the bleachers.

“I would always volunteer to do it and make it as discreet as possible,” he said. “People who need to be helped up into the bleachers, a lot of times because of the embarrassment of being carried, would want it to be at a time before the players were on the field when no one else was there.”

Many of those spectators only wanted to see their kids or grandkids play, Kelly said. And he said that’s why the construction now underway at Cardinal Stadium is a personal issue for him.

“Every person should have the ability to access the bleachers to watch a game,” Kelly said.

After the bleachers were closed temporarily in spring 2019 due to safety concerns, the multi-phase project for Cardinal Stadium kicked into gear with the goal of not only replacing outdated seats but addressing accessibility concerns as well. Late last year, the home-side bleachers were demolished to make way for installation of the new bleachers, along with a new press box, a new team room for players, new bathrooms and a new concession stand.

And the work is done with with a goal of accessibility for all at Cardinal Stadium.

Lack of accessibility

People who use wheelchairs usually had been forced to sit by the fence, away from the other spectators and with a more distant view of the field. The lack of accessibility is also a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

“Accessibility is a top priority and a requirement for this project,” Greenwich Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Sean O’Keefe said this week.

Support for the project comes from several different directions for Stephanie Cowie as she is co-president of the GHS PTA as well as the vice chair of the First Selectman’s Advisory Committee for People With Disabilities.

And as a paraplegic after a spinal stroke, Cowie uses a wheelchair and has experienced first-hand how accessibility issues can keep people from sitting in the bleachers.

“I’ve been there watching my son (play football) and I had to watch the game through a fence at eye level from my wheelchair,” Cowie said. “I think it was sad for me personally to not be able to participate the way everyone else in the stadium was, and not be with my family and friends so we could celebrate together and be part of a normal process. That’s a real obstacle.”

When she traveled to away games, however, Cowie said most other schools have “incredible accessibility” at their playing fields.

“Away games for me were a celebration,” she said.

Seating in the stands

Under the proposed improvements for Cardinal Stadium, an elevator for the press box would also allow people with disabilities to sit on the top row of the bleachers. The seating section in the bleachers would include indentations for wheelchairs, allowing users to sit among other fans.

The current bathrooms are not ADA accessible, Cowie noted, but the project will address that, too.

Cowie also pointed to the problem on campus of parking, which is located far from the stadium, which she said is another issue for those with disabilities.

“Whether you’re a student on crutches or in a wheelchair or an elderly person with some kind of difficulty walking, that alone presented a major obstacle,” Cowie said of the parking. “And then when you get there, you weren’t even able to join your friends or family in the stands.”

The project would add designated handicap parking spaces close to East Putnam Avenue and alongside the stadium, making for far easier access.

Fellow committee member Alan Gunzburg agreed with Cowie on all points.

“When my kids graduated GHS, there was no handicapped parking close to the stadium for a day like that,” Gunzburg said. “It’s not a red issue. It’s not a blue issue. It’s not a political issue with a donkey or an elephant. It’s a black-and-white issue. This is the law. It’s been written for 30 years.”

A short delay?

But an unexpected delay occurred this past week, when the Board of Estimate and Taxation did not release $1.7 million — the next funds budgeted for the project. Those funds are for Phase 1b of the project, which would include the new more accessible parking as well as a new ticket kiosk.

The BET had placed a condition on releasing the money when it was first budgeted, a common procedural move to ensure oversight and review of a complicated project.

On Monday, the BET had been scheduled to discuss lifting the condition, but instead it deferred consideration until its February meeting. Members wanted the review to go through the proper process, which requires its Budget Committee to do a full review first.

By waiting a month, BET members said they could get that full review and also allow for a 30-day period to expire when anyone could refer a P&Z decision to the Representative Town Meeting.

But at that meeting, O’Keefe said the delay in releasing the funds could mean the new bleachers won’t be ready for June graduation as planned and could stall them into the fall.

Cowie expressed surprise over the delay by the BET.

“I couldn’t even fathom that this could happen and it was very disappointing,” she said.

On Thursday, O’Keefe said the school district would “continue to work with the BET and amend our schedule as necessary.” He said they were working with project architects KG+D to evaluate the schedule but did not offer any details.

Kelly also expressed hope that the bleacher work can continue as planned, even with this delay.

“We’re going to push for it,” Kelly said. “It’s a tight window, but we’re taking a couple of different roads to make sure we get it done as soon as possible. Hopefully we’ll get there.”

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com