Ithaca, N.Y. — Chris Bonn had it all planned out months before opening Caravan Serai Tea.
He imagined that his new shop on the Ithaca Commons would fill with customers, crowded around tables to chat as they sipped from his worldly blend of beverages.
About a month after he decided to take the space, however, Bonn learned that this vision would have to be adjusted.
The prior store at the same location had been a head shop. That meant it was considered “mercantile” use under building code. To convert the property to a restaurant, Bonn would have to pay thousands of dollars to construct disability-friendly bathrooms — a prohibitive expense for the small business owner.
The original plans were shelved. Caravan Serai Tea would open with one small bench as seating.
“Things were already in motion,” Bonn said. “I figured I could change it a bit to make it happen — and I did … but it sucks, basically.”
Bonn said he takes responsibility for not thoroughly reading the state law before opening.
“It’s my fault for not doing it and not paying attention in the first place,” Bonn said.
But Bonn isn’t the only owner on the Commons, where space is tight and construction is expensive, to be frustrated by the state’s building code requirements for bathrooms.
Mike Niechwiadowicz, Ithaca’s deputy building commissioner, said that he’s forced under state law to make sure Ithaca’s property owners are following the law.
“I end up being the bearer of bad news telling the folks that bought these spaces or rented these spaces that they need an accessible bathroom,” he said.
“If you change use of an existing building — you go to an existing building code and the section that talks about change of us. There are requirements there for bathroom, and that’s where the accessible bathroom requirement comes from.”
“It’s a state requirement; it’s not a local requirement.”
The state law stems from the desire to protect disability rights, which extend beyond active anti-discrimination and intentional prejudice, according to Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s website.
“Prohibited disability discrimination includes not only intentional prejudice based on disability, but also actions or inactions that operate to deny people with disabilities equal access to the same services, opportunities and benefits that are available to people without disabilities,” the website states.
Though state-wide in nature, the law has a local effect — one that may have increasing relevance amid a building boom downtown.
Matt Diamond, co-owner of the new Gorgers Taco Shack, gave a similar story to the one told by Bonn.
Diamond said he had hoped to place bar stools throughout the taco joint and only learned about the requirement for disabled bathrooms after taking out his lease.
“I thought it was kind of absurd — it would have cost upwards of $15,000, and the place is only 900 square feet,” Diamond said. “You’re taking off another 50 square feet for another handicapped restroom in addition to the cost.”
He was told that putting even one bar stool in place would trigger the disability bathroom requirements. (Diamond also said he thought the city’s inspectors could be more lax in enforcing state codes.)
“It’s unfortunate because Central NY is pretty economically depressed, so you think they’d want do things that would make it easy for businesses,” Diamond said.