Amherst resident alleges discrimination in building code enforcement

  • John Kuhn, vice president of the Downtown Amherst Foundation and the architect for the design of The Drake, sets up chairs for opening night, April 26. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Vira Douangmany Cage

Staff Writer
Published: 2/28/2023 4:26:53 PM

AMHERST — In a complaint filed with the town Human Rights Commission last week, an Amherst resident contends that municipal officials discriminated against a Black-owned business by requiring accessibility to its performance stage, even though there is no permanent ramp at another downtown venue.

Vira Douangmany Cage of Longmeadow Drive submitted the complaint against both the town and The Drake, writing in the form that she was discriminated against by those entities.

“The Drake was not required by the town to install a ramp to their stage, whereas a Black-owned business was required to per the building commissioner,” Cage wrote.

The Black-owned business is identified as Hazel’s Blue Lagoon, a restaurant and nightclub that opened on Boltwood Walk in the fall of 2021.

Cage said that she wants to get facts out about the building code and her concerns that inspectors are not enforcing it fairly. She is using the town’s human rights mechanism, as well as contacting the Massachusetts Office of Disability.

“My concern is what is actually the building code, that’s basically my concern,” Cage said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the town will follow the usual process. That includes Pamela Nolan Young, as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion director, reviewing the complaint and responding to Cage.

“As per the typical process, she will begin the investigation by meeting with Ms. Cage and hearing her story. The DEI director will then determine the next steps,” Bockelman said.

Cage had a virtual meeting with Young set for Tuesday.

Young responded in writing to Cage that her investigation will have the assistance of Jennifer Moyston, the assistant director.

“We will speak with you, obtain additional information and then speak with the individuals who you allege discriminated against you,” Young wrote. “Please note, that the Human Rights Commission does not have the authority to adjudicate discrimination cases. Pursuant to the bylaw the HRC Director is authorized to mediate complaints and to refer complaining parties to other resources.”

Amherst Business Improvement District Executive Director Gabrielle Gould, who oversees The Drake, said the stage has an approved ramp that is fully compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations and state access rules, and the venue has a certificate of occupancy.

“The Drake stage, venue, bathrooms, and green room are fully accessible,” Gould said.

Cage has also alleged further discrimination by the town, agreeing with the Black Business Association’s contentions in December that American Rescue Plan Act money was inequitably distributed and institutional racism played a role.

Cage attached a letter and video to her complaint that is also going to the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee and the Town Council.

That letter elaborates on her concerns about how the building commissioner wouldn’t allow Hazel’s to operate until the ramp was built to specifications.

“The town of Amherst provided preferential treatment to circumvent building code requirements to allow The Drake to open and operate without a wheelchair accessible ramp to the performance stage,” the letter reads.

The video shows inside The Drake where an architect offers an explanation that the ramp for disabled individuals is concealed below the stage.

“The town made a mistake of looking the other way on a basic accessibility accommodation for the mobility impaired and this mistake needs to be rectified and acknowledged,” Cage wrote. “The town also needs to acknowledge its participation in systemic racism, particularly anti-Black racism in this instance with Hazel’s Blue Lagoon and the culture in which this town operates which places more value, more trust and more money in white hands.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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