Sidewalks? They're your problem
Lots of people love having them. Others just wish they had them. And most don't think about who takes care of them. In Seattle, that will...
Seattle Times business reporter; Special to The Seattle Times
Sidewalks in SeattleTo report an uprooted or broken sidewalk: 206-684-7623
To find out if a tree buckling a sidewalk is city- or privately owned: 206-684-8733
Sidewalks: Lots of people love having them. Others just wish they had them.
And most don't think about who takes care of them.
In Seattle, that will change this month when homeowners with a sidewalk damaged enough to be a tripping hazard find an informational flier attached to their door telling them it's their responsibility — not the city's — to repair it.
Depending on the severity of the problem, that could set them back thousands of dollars.
"Lots of people are surprised they are responsible, and then there is the reality of how to pay for sidewalk repair when you are strapped with all kinds of other maintenance needs," said Liz Ellis, with the Seattle Department of Transportation Sidewalk Safety Repair Program. It oversees the city's 2,000 miles of sidewalks.
An increasing number of cities are shifting sidewalk responsibility to homeowners, according to Phil Andreen, a national sidewalk expert and former assistant city attorney for Pasadena, Calif., who defended the city against sidewalk claims for more than 20 years.
Andreen said homeowners usually make repairs more quickly than the city can and the owner is more aware of the immediate condition of the sidewalk. Last year, the city of Seattle received 85 claims from people who have tripped and fallen, including statements from three in the last several months who say they received concussions after falling on buckled Seattle sidewalks.
Dealing with such complaints, and the lawsuits that sometimes result, is a major reason the Edmonds city government has decided to ignore its own rules and maintain its 14 miles of sidewalks itself.
"It's in our ordinance that homeowners have to maintain to the edge of the right of way, but at least 10 years ago we realized we weren't getting anywhere," said Tod Moles, street/storm lead for Edmonds.
Bellevue's policy is that sidewalk repairs are the city's responsibility. It has some 300 miles of sidewalks.
Not city property
That cities aren't routinely responsible for all sidewalk maintenance may surprise many homeowners, but the sidewalks in front of homes aren't city property.
"Generally the city has an easement, but the property itself belongs to the homeowner," said Gregg Hirakawa, spokesman for Seattle's Department of Transportation.
The easement's there so the public can traverse what's actually private property.
Sidewalks sometimes were built because a city's building codes required them. Sometimes they were added by developers as a marketing tool.
Decades ago, "developers put sidewalks in because they couldn't sell houses very well unless they had sidewalks," notes Anne Vernez Moudon, an architecture and urban-planning professor at the University of Washington.
Then the car came in, which made suburban subdivisions possible, and everything changed.
Suddenly sidewalks were dismissed as the territory of lower-income, inner-city public transportation riders, according to Vernez Moudon.
The 'burbs, where folks who could afford cars lived, had no need for sidewalks. The fact that none of them were built was visual proof of the neighborhood's affluence.
"Between the 1950s and the 1980s we had very few sidewalks added because no one thought it was [necessary] to sell houses," she said.
By the late 1980s, the modern, midcentury look (think suburban rambler) had waned. Old-style pitched roofs and porches began to look good to homebuyers again, and with the renewed popularity of Craftsman-style architecture, sidewalks surged back. Today they're ubiquitous in the newer planned communities that dot East King County.
Sidewalks, no sidewalks?
Still, generalizations about whether people want sidewalks, and what they say about neighborhoods, don't hold, Vernez Moudon said.
For example, Mercer Island, which prizes its rural, tree-lined-lane ambience, doesn't have them, although it's one of King County's most expensive neighborhoods. There's no serious public sentiment for adding them in its residential areas.
In other sidewalkless areas, homeowners may want them, but then think better of it.
"We wanted to put sidewalks in front of our house, but found out we would be responsible and it would cost about $10,000," said Laurie Olson, of Bitter Lake, in North Seattle.
She was concerned about her kids playing outside or pedestrians on her busy residential street. After realizing that all the neighbors on her block would have to agree to put sidewalks in and that not all could afford to do so, the plan didn't seem feasible.
Several years ago, Seattle's Department of Transportation surveyed city residents to find out how satisfied they were with 12 different services. The ability of the city to maintain "sidewalks, walkways and crosswalks" was one of the lowest-rated areas.
Since then, Mayor Greg Nickels has announced his "Pedestrian Master Plan" to make Seattle the "most walkable city" in the nation. Voters approved the "Bridging the Gap" tax levy last fall that would channel some funds to repair and build new sidewalks.
But after 20 years of consistent budget cutbacks on maintenance, the city now faces a large backlog of repairs. As a result, city-owned sidewalk repairs will have priority over those in residential neighborhoods that are the responsibility of homeowners, according to Ellis, of the Department of Transportation.
The city will also repair any sidewalk damaged by a city-owned tree, Ellis said, and the city arborist can provide that information.
"We're trying to be nice," she said of the informational fliers telling homeowners they need to make fixes themselves.
The city may be able to help homeowners with a temporary shim, usually asphalt to even out a surface, she said, because the most important part of the project is to help make sidewalks safer for pedestrians.
When a temporary shim fails or a new sidewalk is needed, it can be a difficult or impossible financial burden for some homeowners.
Some homeowners think fixing their broken sidewalk is just the right thing to do.
"I was sick of tripping over it myself," said Casey McNeil, who has owned his Eastlake neighborhood home 15 years.
He chatted as he stood outside under a large hawthorn tree that once uprooted his sidewalk. It made him realize that people, including his neighbors, could trip over it.
Last year, McNeil bought cement and replaced the worn sidewalks with the help of his next-door neighbor. He said he was glad he could fix the sidewalk instead of ripping out the tall tree that caused the cracks.
Across the street, Jule James stood on his cracked sidewalk. He wants to make repairs, but said his wife has other plans.
"She says she needs a new kitchen, and what am I supposed to tell her — that we need to use our entire home-maintenance budget on a sidewalk first?"
After getting a bid of $4,000 for the repair, James faced another issue: The tree pushing up his portion of the sidewalk is owned by his neighbor.
In 60 percent of the cases Andreen handled, trees contributed to problems with the sidewalk, including two wrongful-death lawsuits as a result of falls.
Now he speaks at National Arbor Day Foundation conferences to promote keeping sidewalks in good repair without having to permanently remove the trees causing the problems.
He recommends trying a "meandering sidewalk" around a tree root, perhaps building a small bridge over a section the tree is lifting, or putting up warning signs. But the most important way to improve safety is by planting the right kind of trees that are compatible with sidewalks, he said.
And it's not just trees that are the problem, Ellis says. Sometimes it can be the soil shifting, or cars driving onto the concrete, or a number of other non-tree-related issues.
Recently Ellis investigated six complaints of treacherous sidewalks. While she is at a site, she'll sometimes check out other areas nearby for problems.
They aren't hard to find. "At some point I just have to stop," she said, "I just run out of time."
Elizabeth Rhodes: email@example.com