WILMINGTON — Arriving at Live Oak Bank Pavilion this past summer, many concertgoers with back pain or canes and wheelchairs asked the red-shirt employees the same question: Where’s the handicapped parking?
Most heard the same answer: There is none.
Throughout its inaugural concert season, Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park’s handicapped parking policy was basically a drop-off system. People with disabilities were expected to arrange for drop off at the venue’s entrance and wait in folding chairs, designated with laminated blue handicap signs, while the driver of the car found a parking space elsewhere downtown. However, that system hasn’t accommodated guests who show up solo or older couples. Several concertgoers reported having to park in decks or on-street spaces three or more blocks away.
“I’ve been to shows all over this country and outside of the country, too, but this is the worst I have ever been treated,” said Chris Mathis, 50, of Southport. “The worst I’ve ever been treated as a handicap person, right here — I was born in Wilmington — in my hometown, and I am embarrassed.”
When Widespread Panic held the opening shows at the venue in July, Mathis attended all three nights. He found parking spots near the entrance. He said he had “a great outlook on what was coming up in the future” and looked forward to no longer making the trip to Raleigh to see performers he loves. So he bought tickets for two more back-to-back shows.
When he returned for the next concert, Gov’t Mule, he saw the area across from Marina Grill, where he’d previously parked, appeared under construction.
“I asked the people, ‘Where’s handicapped parking?’ and they didn’t have a clue,” Mathis said.
Mathis circled the area, driving further and further from the venue in search of a space until he eventually reached one of the decks charging $15.
“I broke down. I was about in tears, and I just decided I was gonna go home,” Mathis said, “that I wasn’t gonna pay additional to have to put myself through misery and walk all that way to a show.”
As he was pulling out of the deck to head back to Southport, Mathis found an on-street space. He debated leaving but got his cane out and walked multiple blocks to the show — a decision he’d later regret when the pain kicked in. The next night, he left Trey Anastasio Band’s show at Riverfront Park early. He said his hips still hurt to this day.
Throughout the Gov’t Mule show, Mathis said he asked police, paramedics and any Live Nation employee he came across where the handicapped parking was.
“They did tell me when I was leaving, ‘You can drop off the handicap person at the gate and then go park somewhere else,’” he said. “Well, that’s wonderful. But once I drop myself off, what do I do with my van?”
City of Wilmington spokesperson Jennifer Dandron indicated the city has heard similar concerns and is evaluating ways it can improve the experience at the city-owned venue ahead of the 2022 concert season.
Live Nation did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Dandron said, short term, a new accommodation will be implemented for patrons to call in advance and receive assistance from a Live Nation staff member. Parking will be reserved on Nutt Street, the closest on-street spaces, for people with mobility limitations. Live Nation and the city are still sorting out the logistics, and Dandron couldn’t specify how many spots will open.
Long term, she said the city government intends to negotiate with developers adjacent to the park for spaces in their garages. Apartments next door have parking decks just footsteps from the venue.
For years, Riverfront Park was planned and designed without any attached parking. The $38-million project received $20 million in funding through the parks bond, approved by voters in 2016. City leaders committed to retaining the entire 6.6 acres for park, rather than impervious surfaces. In an interview earlier this year, the city’s community services director, Amy Beatty, suggested the limited parking was actually beneficial because patrons would pass by and likely drop into businesses on their way to the shows, contributing to the local economy.
“This isn’t an old building downtown that’s maybe grandfathered in, and they just didn’t think about [the Americans with Disabilities Act] 50 years ago. This is brand new,” Mathis said. “They could have thought a lot better ahead of time. I feel like they made decisions to make more ticket sales, and not think about people who are disadvantaged.”
According to Chris Hodgson, attorney with Disability Rights North Carolina, ADA accessibility guidelines only kick in when spaces are paved. If the city had designed and built parking, it would have been required to designate a specific number of spaces as accessible. Since there is no parking attached to Riverfront Park, there is no obligation.
Just over 2,360 spaces exist within a 15-minute walk of the venue. At all times, the city offers an accommodation to drivers with accessible parking license plates or hanging tags, where they can park for free in any on-street metered space for an unlimited time. They also can park for an unlimited time in off-street parking but must pay the hourly rates.
Few optimal alternatives
David Raber, 68, of Leland, said he was avoiding the drop-off method after a “fiasco” third night of Widespread Panic. Storms rolled in, and Live Nation would not permit guests into the venue until weather conditions cleared. Raber was dropped off at 4:30 p.m. and said his only option was to wait under the overhang of the neighboring apartment building.
“There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of us trying to stand under there until the rain stopped,” Raber said.
Around 7:30 p.m., Live Nation announced the pavilion would open to guests, more than three hours after intended. But, after several hours of waiting outside, Raber said he was picked up and never saw the show.
“We tried to stick it out,” Raber said. “I had my cane, and I have back problems, you know, chronic lower back pain like you get when you get older, and between that and the rain, and there was nowhere to go to even use the restroom.”
Ahead of his second concert, Train, Raber called the City of Wilmington to find out where the handicapped parking was. Besides the drop-off method, he was recommended two options: Park on the street — which he said was blocked off near the venue — or use the “P1” deck at the Wilmington Convention Center or “P2” deck on Hanover Street. Both are a walk down Nutt Street from Hanover.
He wound up at one that cost $15 cash, but Raber said he brought no dollar bills because the venue only accepts debit and credit cards. He tried the convention center deck instead, parked on an upper level, then had some difficulty finding an operational elevator. From there, it’s about a 10-minute walk, according to Google Maps.
“[It] is a pretty good hike for anybody either in a wheelchair or that uses a cane or has difficulty walking,” said Raber, who was using a cane that evening.
Riverfront Park was built to be half-park and half-venue. That’s why the lawn elevation is only slightly angled, at a 4% grading, and Live Nation has to tow in fences, concession stands and seating to prepare for each show. The city didn’t want parkgoers to feel as if they were in an empty amphitheater while the property was in park mode the majority of the time.
Dandron indicated opening a new park has presented challenges, especially with a compressed concert schedule and Covid-19, but she said that was to be expected.
“The city and Live Nation work together and learn from each concert on ways to improve and address issues,” Dandron said.
The spokesperson said all areas of the park meet ADA guidelines.
Yet, once concertgoers with disabilities conquer the overarching parking struggle, little inconveniences about the venue begin to add up: the lack of permanent screens on both sides of the stage (a complaint observed by many non-disabled attendees as well); the bumps over the walkways; the stairs to the lawn upon initial entry, forcing some to take the walkaround path.
Dandron points out the city is grateful to have a park attracting people downtown and “big names” to Wilmington.
“You hear all these wonderful things about the Riverfront Park and this needs to be known, that it isn’t all roses and nice smelling. There’s a sticky side, if you have a disability of some sort,” Mathis said. “Come one, come some.”
Long-time concertgoers are pointing to other venues as examples of better accommodations. Naturally formed, the famous Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater in Colorado has no parking next to it, but shuttles transport people with disabilities to the venue. At Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh, cars with handicap tags park in a designated area and employees will give people with disabilities rides on golf carts to and fro.
“They’re very courteous and no hesitation,” Raber said. “If you say you need a ride, they say jump on and then after the concert, they tell you, ‘Just go to the benches in certain areas, and we’ll pick you up.’”
It hasn’t all been negative reactions. After she broke her leg, Mary Ellen Cole, of Leland, anticipated it would be more of a bother to see Harry Connick Jr. live. She couldn’t sit on her rollator, since lawn chairs are limited to a 9-inch height, and couldn’t reach anyone through the phone or app the day of the event to upgrade her ticket. Once she arrived, she said she was immediately helped by a staff member and placed in the back row of the seated section.
“I’m 60-some-odd-years-old so … if I ever get in a crowd, I usually take a cane, but I would definitely go back, and I would buy a seat,” Cole said. “It was a wonderful venue. It was a beautiful night.”
For Raber, he is doubtful he will return.
“Let me put it this way,” Raber said, “if there’s a performer or band that we would like to see, if they’re going to be playing somewhere within a radius of, say, anywhere from Charleston to Raleigh to Asheville, we’re going to go there.”
Live Nation sent the following statement Thursday after press time: “We are fully ADA compliant at Riverfront Park, and are always taking feedback to improve accessibility including several projects currently in the works.“