Northampton panel member’s reappointment opposed after ‘ugly’ handicapped access remark

Northampton City Hall.

Northampton City Hall. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 06-16-2024 12:01 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A routine reappointment to the city’s Central Business Architecture Committee became a little more complicated after a member of the Northampton City Council objected to the committee member’s description of a proposed handicapped-access lift as “ugly.”

Joe Blumenthal, known in the community as the longtime owner of the Downtown Sounds music store in Northampton, was up for another three-year term on the architecture committee, which oversees the preservation of the city’s historic downtown. Blumenthal has served on the committee since its inception in 1999.

But Ward 4’s Jeremy Dubs, a member of the council’s City Services committee, objected to Blumenthal’s reappointment due to remarks Blumenthal made during a Central Business Architecture Committee meeting on building the wheelchair-access lift at 41 Strong Ave., the home of Mulino’s Restaurant and the Honey Northampton cannabis dispensary. The addition of the lift, to be located on the side of the building and encased in an entryway, was prompted by a complaint made to the state’s Architectural Access Board.

The lift was approved by that committee on April 30, but during the meeting Blumenthal remarked that the change was “going to be an ugly anomaly no matter what we do, and we might as well let the applicant do it the way he preferred.”

Dubs, who has a condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta or brittle bone disease that requires him to use a wheelchair, said he had been the one who made the initial complaint to the state board and took offense at Blumenthal’s remarks.

“I found it really not just personally offensive, but offensive to the community and to the city,” Dubs said during the City Council’s June 6 meeting. “I understand that physical appearance is important in architecture, but I would hope that [Blumenthal] could have an open mind to see the beauty in access.”

Furthermore, Dubs said that in a follow-up email correspondence, Blumenthal did not apologize for his remarks from the meeting.

“The values of accessibility are often difficult to reconcile with the values of historic preservation and aesthetics,” Blumenthal wrote in the email.

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“Do I think that it’s a beautiful thing that when this project is done, you will be able to enter the building? Absolutely! Do I think that this addition is and of itself inherently beautiful? I’m sorry but I do not, and if it weren’t attached to some more important value, I would never have voted in favor of it.”

Two other Northampton city councilors, Ward 3’s Quaverly Rothenberg and Ward 7’s Rachel Maiore, voiced their support for Dubs in not wanting to reappoint Blumenthal.

“I feel like my job right now is to believe Councilor Dubs and follow his lead as someone who’s impacted by those types of comments,” Maiore said. “So I will support however Councilor Dubs is feeling about this.”

But the remaining six councilors defended Blumenthal, saying that although his remarks may have been inappropriate, he had done much to support the city’s downtown over the years.

“I don’t think he meant to do that for any kind of harm or anything,” said Ward 6’s Marianne LeBarge, who has often advocated for disability rights during her time on the council. “I want to give him another opportunity.”

Ultimately, Blumenthal was reappointed to the committee by a vote of 6-3.

Following the meeting, Blumenthal sent another email the following Monday to the City Council, this time issuing a formal apology.

“I let me emotions get the better of me. I know that my remarks were unduly harsh, and for that I apologize,” Blumenthal wrote. “I understand that all of us who have responsibilities for governing must maintain a professional attitude at all times, and I hope to be able to do so going into the future.”

 Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.