City considers taking responsibility or helping residents pay for fixesBY JON MURRAY THE DENVER POST
The walk to Cory Elementary is less than three blocks from the Powell family’s home. It would be easy for the family’s two young children to handle it on their own — if Samantha Powell didn’t think their lives were in danger.
She’s not alone among parents in south Denver’s Cory-Merrill neighborhood. The post-World War II neighborhood’s original rural character has evolved and is attracting young families, but the sidewalks — often missing — have not, requiring those on foot or in wheelchairs to take to the street and cross some thoroughfares far from traffic lights.
The neighborhood is among several pockets of the fast-growing city, including both working-class and well-to-do areas, that still lack sidewalks along hundreds of miles of streets. Elsewhere, pedestrians in places with aging sidewalk networks — from downtown to the Capitol Hill neighborhood and most older areas — often face cracked or disjointed pavement and stone walks.
Neighborhood and walking advocates and City Council members point the finger for both problems at a decades-old city ordinance that makes adjacent property owners responsible for building and maintaining sidewalks. The result has been widespread deterioration, minimal city enforcement unless people file complaints and frustration from homeowners who often can’t afford needed fixes.
But appeals from the advocacy group WalkDenver and residents across the city are gaining new traction at city hall. Officials have resisted big changes in the past, in part because of concerns over liability and costs that potentially could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Council members including Paul Kashmann, who’s chairing a new council working group on sidewalks, say it’s time for the city to reconsider its policy and take on the responsibility — or find ways to help residents pay the tab.
“If we really are serious about encouraging cycling (and) encouraging pedestrians, we need to begin what I suspect will be a decades-long project of providing Denver with a world-class pedestrian infrastructure,” said Kashmann, who was elected to represent Powell’s district last year. “Not just talking about it, but a sidewalk system that really does work.”
In Cory-Merrill, Powell accompanies her children to and from school each day, walking them down the alley behind their house to busy Florida Avenue. The north side lacks a sidewalk for several blocks near the school campus, so they dodge traffic to cross safely to the sidewalk on the other side.
“There’s simply no way to get from A to B without being in the middle of the street at some point,” said Powell, whose account echoes those of several families in the neighborhood who shared with The Denver Post.
On some blocks, there are nearly useless hodgepodges of sidewalks fronting newer homes, reflecting more recent city requirements, that start and end at property lines.
Similar concerns about missing sidewalks long have persisted in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, working-class neighborhoods in north Denver where many residents rely on buses. But about half the streets lack sidewalks, said Nola Miguel, director of LiveWell, a program that focuses on health issues in those neighborhoods.
And property owners there are unable to afford costs that city officials say can run $2,500 or more just for 50 feet of sidewalk, counting only the concrete.
“There’s a feeling within the neighborhoods that the city is letting them down,” Miguel said. “There’s been that feeling for 75 years.”
Denver Public Works is finalizing a sidewalk inventory of 3,395 miles of streets. It has classified 250 miles as lacking sidewalks on one or both sides of the street; of the remainder, the department says it doesn’t rate sidewalk condition, though WalkDenver has attempted to fill that gap by providing an online tool for residents to rate sidewalks.
Writ large, Public Works estimates that concrete costs alone to build sidewalks where they’re missing could run from $50 million to $75 million — before considering expenses to relocate utilities, regrade land and buy strips of land where the city doesn’t already have right of way.
Unlike some smaller suburban neighbors, including Westminster and Englewood, Denver doesn’t assess homeowners a regular fee of some kind to pay for sidewalk maintenance. Instead, the city tackles the sidewalk problem selectively, leaving most of the problem alone and springing for new ones when money becomes available, with a focus on transit corridors and school routes.
Meanwhile, city parks and golf courses often lack sidewalks along their perimeters. Bus stops are planted in the dirt or grass, and riders trudge what advocates call “desire lines” into the ground leading to them. Along major transit routes, including Sheridan and Colorado boulevards, there still are notable stretches lacking sidewalks.
Last year, in response to complaints, the city issued 30 notices to property owners that gave them 45 days to fix their sidewalks. If they don’t, they risk facing a property lien after the city does the work and charges them.
But Denver limits each person concerned about sidewalk condition to filing one complaint a year. That dates to more than a decade ago, one public works official said, when an overeager contractor filed more than 200 complaints and then solicited sidewalk work.
Denver’s placement of responsibility on property owners is typical for western U.S. cities. But some have more aggressive programs, according to Denver City Council research, including a Seattle transportation property tax levy that pays to fix some sidewalks and Milwaukee’s combination of inspection schedules and enforcement, coupled with its sharing of repair costs with homeowners.
Older eastern cities such as Boston tend to shoulder the burden — though often with cash-strapped backlogs.
Westminster’s $6-a-month fee and Englewood’s voluntary sidewalk assessment, about a dime per square foot of concrete, show that “it’s not necessarily a complicated problem to solve,” said Jill Locantore, WalkDenver’s policy and program director. “(A fee) recognizes that yes, (sidewalks are) a public good. … It just requires the political will to do so.”
Kashmann says it’s too soon to predict what might result from the council’s working group. It’s set to meet for the second time at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the City and County Building.
He said a meeting with Powell spurred him to action. Last year, WalkDenver also put pressure on council members. It says 2,500 people signed a petition that calls for dedicated sidewalk funding, potentially by creating a fee of $5 to $10 per month for the average property.
Separately, Mayor Michael Hancock last year convened a mobility working group that is reviewing a variety of transportation needs, including for pedestrians, and is evaluating the city’s funding priorities.
That group hasn’t produced any proposals yet. The mayor has made no public commitment to dedicate money to sidewalks on a large scale.
The city now is tackling a related issue involving sidewalk accessibility for the disabled at many intersections to meet federal requirements. It began setting aside nearly $10 million from other funds last year to build curbs and ramps in many places across the city as part of a new agreement with civil rights and disability groups. The City Council says another $9.3 million may be set aside in 2017 as the effort continues.
But that work hasn’t fixed sidewalks outside intersections.
Crissy Fanganello, the city’s transportation director and the group’s co-chair, said that once the mobility working group establishes a vision for future transportation needs later this year, “then we’ll have a better idea of what that will mean from a resource perspective” for sidewalks.
On Wednesday, Hancock announced a “Vision Zero” goal of eliminating all traffic-related deaths and serious injuries. As part of that, the city points to plans for more targeted sidewalk and pedestrian projects, including in the reconstruction of Brighton Boulevard from 29th to 44th streets, and on Sheridan.
But big hurdles remain to a major change in the approach to sidewalks citywide, from legal considerations about potentially losing the city’s immunity to most liability claims related to sidewalks to finding consensus on how to raise funding.
And in a few pockets of town, residents who want to keep quiet streets long have opposed the idea of installing sidewalks. Kashmann says he doesn’t want to impose them where they aren’t wanted.
Julia Merjil, who says her complaints to the city about her cracking sidewalk in Athmar Park have resulted in no action — even though she blames ineffective gutters the city is responsible for — resists the idea of a new fee or tax when she sees her property taxes as enough.
“If it’s already in the existing budget, that would be helpful,” she said, calling for prioritization.
In nearby Westwood, the community group Westwood Unidos says a new fee or tax to provide needed fixes should be progressive, rather than a fixed amount or rate, so that “low-income people do not pay a larger percent of their earnings than others do.”