Out of reach: Vets say Vietnam memorial is inaccessible

Vets must cross six lanes of traffic and walk a 570-foot uphill path to get to the Dogwood Vietnam Memorial (with flagpoles, above).Skyclad AERIAL Vets must cross six lanes of traffic and walk a 570-foot uphill path to get to the Dogwood Vietnam Memorial (with flagpoles, above).Skyclad AERIAL

Charlottesville’s Dogwood Vietnam Memorial, dedicated in 1966, was one of the first memorials to Vietnam veterans in the country. When the John Warner Parkway was built, the memorial was improved and is now visible to those driving by. The problem, say veterans, is getting to it.

In an 18-page letter to City Council, former mayor Tom Vandever, executive director of the Independent Resource Center, says, “We continue to believe the City of Charlottesville is not adhering to federal laws and requirements regarding access to public spaces.”

Parking is foremost among the ways Vandever says the memorial is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Veterans wishing to visit the memorial must park at the Charlottesville Albemarle Rescue Squad, and hike nearly a quarter mile, crossing six lanes of traffic at the McIntire interchange and then climbing a 570-foot asphalt ramp, he says.

To skirt ADA requirements, says Vandever, the city designates the ramp a “trail” even though it’s within feet of one of the city’s busiest intersections. “The thing that ticked me off the most was to call that a trail,” he says. “Even if it’s ultimately legal, it galls me the city would take that action rather than serve our citizens.”

Vandever also calls out the lack of signage to direct people to parking. And if they find parking at the rescue squad—or a half mile away at the YMCA—there are no signs explaining how to actually get to the memorial.

As a member of the Dogwood Festival Foundation, Jim Shisler was instrumental in getting the original memorial built and can recall the exact date of the area’s first casualty: “ November 4, 1965, Champ Jackson Lawson.”

Shisler, 85, says access for veterans is “impossible for a lot of them.” If he walks to the memorial from the rescue squad, it takes almost 14 minutes and he has to scale the last 500 feet up a 5 percent grade. “We don’t believe it’s ADA compliant,” he says.

Photographer Jim Carpenter is a vet with five friends who died in Vietnam commemorated at the memorial, who has made the “dangerous” trek to get there. “If ADA gets involved, it’s going to cost the city a lot of money,” he says. “Five cities went up against ADA and they lost.”

“The city believes the trail up to the memorial meets ADA requirements,” says city spokesman Brian Wheeler. He says veterans were involved in the east McIntire Park master plan, but concedes, “They may have been under the impression there would be access through the wading pool park.”

The master plan “did have a paved entrance using the old golf path through the wading pool up until the last presentation,” says Shisler, who notes planning has been going on for more than 20 years. The final park master plan depicts only pedestrian or bike access to the memorial.

The inclusion of the skate park at the site of the wading pool is a relatively new addition. While a parking lot remains there, the gate to it from the U.S. 250 Bypass is closed and skateboarders must walk from a lot near the YMCA across the new pedestrian bridge.

“The reason it’s closed is for safety reasons, because of the on ramp,” says Wheeler. “The dynamics really changed.” The Vietnam memorial and skate park are not the first to lose convenient access as a result of the McIntire interchange. Across the bypass, the Birdwood neighborhood is limited to one exit, despite residents’ concerns about safety and emergency egress.

Skateboarders seem less bothered about the walk to the park. Says David Juer, “I kind of like it you don’t have a lot of cars pulling up.”

Longtime skate park advocate Duane Brown says while it would be nice to be able to park closer, “everybody’s so excited about the skate park itself.”

The city has no plans to provide closer parking to the Vietnam memorial. “It’s a really constrained location bordered by railroad tracks, the bypass and parkway,” says Wheeler. “There’s not an easy or affordable way to build a road.”

The city is committed to installing appropriate signage, he says. And it’s considering having an on-call golf cart or vehicle to transport disabled veterans—at least those who make arrangements in advance.

“That’s like putting a bandaid on Hoover Dam,” says Carpenter, who wonders how a wheelchair will fit on a golf cart.

At the April 1 City Council meeting, interim city manager Mike Murphy listed the “complex and costly” reasons why nearby parking was a no-go, including that the Warner parkway was limited access.

City Council made it limited access, says Shisler, and could reverse that if it chooses. He also disputes Murphy’s statements that vets wanted the site higher and were in on the planning that did not include nearby parking.

“The fact is, there’s no way to get to the memorial for people with mobility issues,” he says.

Veterans are allowed vehicle access three times a year, says Shisler, and they’re expecting 300 people April 26.

“These Vietnam veterans are 70 now,” says Shisler. “It’s a real chore now to get there. We are concerned why the city positions themselves as in compliance when we don’t feel they are.”

Before the nearest parking lot closed, Beulah Carter visited the memorial to her son, Richard Thomas Carter, an Echols scholar who died in 1970 and was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Jim Carpenter

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