The Sunken Garden at the Como Park Conservatory in St. Paul is an up-close oasis of green and warmth, even after the snowiest of Minnesota winters.

Unless you need a wheelchair.

Years of disrepair and sporadic availability of the Sunken Garden's two wheelchair elevators have meant that mobility-challenged visitors are usually limited to viewing the space from an overlook far from the garden's sights and scents.

City officials confirmed the elevators — one on each side of the main stairway going down into the garden — have been a problem for years.

"We have continually made repairs due to the environment they're in, load and other factors," St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Andy Rodriguez said in a statement Thursday. "The elevators are extremely expensive to repair and/or replace, so we are trying to look at other options that will make the space accessible — like raising the garden, removing the lifts and ramping."

But building ramps, Rodriguez said, would result in the loss of 25% of the Sunken Garden's space.

"So, we are currently looking at our options and assessing to see what makes the most sense for us," he continued. "It is on our [Americans with Disabilities Act] transition plan, and we are trying to rectify this issue in a timely manner, but we are currently waiting on quotes for the different options listed above."

In late 2017, the Parks and Recreation Department produced a multimillion-dollar ADA transition plan identifying dozens of improvements needed to bring facilities into compliance with the 1990 law. All public entities with more than 50 employees were required under the ADA to have transition plans in place by July 26, 1992, but the department had no such plan in place for more than 20 years.

In 2022, the city's general fund provided more than $770,000 for the conservatory, of which about $26,000 was for services and supplies, according to Clare Cloyd, a Parks and Recreation spokeswoman.

Rodriguez said officials hope to choose a way forward soon. The city's capital improvement budget includes $276,000 for the Parks and Recreation Department to find a solution in 2023, and "we will receive the funding towards the beginning of May," he said. The money is included in a $24 million pool allocated to city departments to begin catching up on "deferred maintenance" this year, Rodriguez said.

But the fact that the Sunken Garden has for years been unreachable for people in wheelchairs is inexcusable, said David Fenley, ADA director at the Minnesota Council on Disability. While the ADA requires businesses to remove barriers for people with disabilities "if readily achievable," he said, the burden is greater for government entities that receive taxpayer funding.

"The reality is, that is a space that's just not really accessible to folks with a disability," Fenley said. "If replacement parts are not available, it's your responsibility to replace [the elevators] and make it accessible."

The ADA was intended to remove roadblocks that prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in society, Fenley said. But the law contains few enforcement teeth, he said, and the responsibility for prodding officials to act often falls to the affected person, who can either sue or file a complaint.

"Do we as a society think everyone should be included? If not, we'll just slip back," Fenley said. "Folks with disabilities have been excluded from society before. But since we have determined that these people deserve to be part of our society, then they have to be included."