Archive for Sunday, September 24, 2006

Watch your step

Repair bill for city sidewalks could be coming

September 24, 2006


Go ahead, just try to walk an East Lawrence sidewalk without breaking your mother's back.

Preliminary results of a four-month study of the city's sidewalks reveal plenty of cracks, and many times larger obstacles to be avoided on some of the city's oldest sidewalks.

"We knew there were quite a few areas with problems," said Gwen Klingenberg, a Lawrence resident who has been championing the cause of better sidewalks. "We can tell now that it is going to take a long time to get everything addressed."

The condition of Lawrence sidewalks

Download a PDF file detailing the condition of sidewalks in Lawrence (2.3 MB)

The report - which involved two city interns inspecting every public sidewalk in the city - ranked the conditions of the sidewalk on a scale of good, fair, poor and critical. The report also attempted to show where gaps in sidewalk coverage occurred.

Results are still being tabulated by city engineers, but the preliminary findings largely are what they expected: The oldest areas of town have the most sidewalks in need of repair.

East Lawrence had the largest concentration of sidewalks that fell in the critical range, which means they were heavily cracked, were covered with overgrowth or had multiple instances where the sidewalk had buckled and created a tripping hazard. For example, one area of East Lawrence - an area east of Massachusetts Street, west of Delaware Street and in between 13th and 14th Streets - had 18 of its 31 blocks of street rated critical. Only three blocks were rated good.

Enforcement issues

Conditions aren't likely to improve quickly, both city engineers and sidewalk improvement advocates said.

Chrissy Whetter, Lawrence, avoids a piece of broken sidewalk near 13th and Massachusetts as she pushes Jacob Goans-Heinz, 1, in his stroller. The city of Lawrence has released a map highlighting the best and worst sidewalks, such as this stretch of sidewalk, in Lawrence.

Chrissy Whetter, Lawrence, avoids a piece of broken sidewalk near 13th and Massachusetts as she pushes Jacob Goans-Heinz, 1, in his stroller. The city of Lawrence has released a map highlighting the best and worst sidewalks, such as this stretch of sidewalk, in Lawrence.

The city has an ordinance that requires property owners to maintain and repair sidewalks that run through their properties at their own expense. There's also a city ordinance that allows the city to force property owners to repair sidewalks if the walkways are buckled or cracked to the point there is a ledge of a half-inch or greater along the sidewalk.

City crews, though, have traditionally used that ordinance to force repairs only after receiving complaints from the public, meaning that it is used about a half-dozen times per year, said City Engineer Terese Gorman.

The new map, though, does a good job showing the sidewalks that likely are in violation of the city ordinance. But city officials have indicated they aren't planning to use the map for stepped-up enforcement.

"I don't know that the city is wanting to make an enemy of all those people who have busted sidewalks," said Chuck Soules, city director of public works. "Our goal is just to have a walkable community. I think that means we'll have to look to find some alternative funding methods. We'll be looking to stretch our dollars."

City Commissioner Boog Highberger, who has frequently pushed walkability issues in the city, said he not sure the city should simply start demanding property owners fix the sidewalks in front of their homes.

The cost to fix a sidewalk can be significant. To replace a one foot section of five-feet wide sidewalk can cost between $30 to $50, Gorman said. So for many property owners it would cost more than $2,000 to replace the entire section of sidewalk in front of their homes.

"I don't have the answer yet, but I think there is a way we can get back to where we need to be without being too much of a burden on people," Highberger said.

But Highberger said he also doesn't think the city can afford to take over all maintenance and repair costs of sidewalks. The city has 322 miles of sidewalk - a number that grows each time a new neighborhood is built.

Instead, Highberger said he thought the city should consider offering matching grants to help reduce the costs for residents to improve their sidewalks. He also said the city could serve as a bank to finance projects.

For example, if a group of residents along one block wanted to install a new sidewalk, the city could act as the general contractor for the project. The city could pay all the construction costs and then collect those costs from residents through special assessments on their property tax bills. That would allow residents to pay their share over a period of years.

New problems

City engineers said they believe most of the problems with the sidewalks in older neighborhoods are the result of the sidewalks being beyond their 50-year life expectancy. In addition, the older neighborhoods are more likely to have mature trees with roots pushing upward on the sidewalks.

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Sidewalk problems, though, can be found in about any area of town. The new map showed critical sidewalks in several new areas. For example, an area of 33rd Street between Iowa and Kasold was rated as critical, and a stretch of sidewalk along Burning Tree Drive - which is in a new residential area southwest of Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive was rated as critical. Many of the sidewalks in relatively new residential areas west of Wakarusa Drive had degraded to the point of being rated fair rather than good.

Breakdowns of new sidewalks are particularly troubling to city engineers, Gorman said.

"When we have a newer sidewalk that is a bad sidewalk, that disturbs me," Gorman said. "That shouldn't happen."

The reason it does, both Gorman and Soules said, is because the sidewalks get damaged during the construction of new homes. Sidewalks and streets are among the first things installed in new neighborhoods. As the homes get built, it is not uncommon for large pieces of construction equipment to drive over sidewalks.

Soules said city building inspectors check sidewalks for cracks and damage before issuing a final building permit for a house. But Soules said that isn't always effective because cracks don't show up immediately. Usually, it is the weight of a vehicle that weakens the sidewalk, but it is cold weather and the shrinking and expanding ground that produce the crack.

The city is working to educate builders and landscapers on the importance of bringing equipment in and out through a driveway. Another option for dealing with the problem is to require builders to provide a one-year warranty for all sidewalks. Soules said he would want to research that option more before recommending such a policy.

"I don't know if other communities are doing that or not," Soules said.

'Baby steps'

City engineers are researching several sidewalk-related issues. Top on the list is how to spend $250,000 set aside in the 2007 budget for sidewalks and traffic calming. The money is supposed to be split between sidewalks and devices such as traffic circles and speed humps.

Why sidewalks crack

Engineers say sidewalk cracks sometimes start before a neighborhood is completed because of construction equipment traffic. But once a crack starts it can quickly grow from cold weather and the shrinking and expanding ground beneath it.

Soules said he was leaning toward recommending the money be used to fill in gaps - places where sidewalks just end - on major city streets. The new map shows gaps on several large streets such as Iowa, Sixth and 23rd streets. But Soules is cautioning people to not expect too much.

For example, there is a major gap along Sixth Street between Iowa Street and Schwarz Road. That stretch generates some foot traffic, in part, because it leads to the city's lone Greyhound bus stop.

But Soules said to add sidewalk to that area likely would cost more than $200,000.

"It would cost more than we have to spend for the entire year," Soules said.

Highberger said he recognized commissioners must get more aggressive, if they hope to make a major dent in improving the city's sidewalks.

"What we did for 2007 were just baby steps," Highberger said. "It will allow us to plug a few gaps, but it won't allow us to do much. We listened to our constituents, and they were really concerned about a (property tax) increase this year."

Klingenberg said she hoped the city moved forward on the sidewalk improvements.

"We want to be a walkable city," Klingenberg said. "It makes it difficult if you have to walk in the street because a lot of people won't do that. It's important that we do something because neighborhoods are stronger if you can get out and walk around and meet people."


KsTwister 11 years, 8 months ago

Walking is recreation,so the commish should use the Recreation fund to fix these or take our tax money out of the General Fund like most cities do. Downsize the Recreation Fund, with authorized expenditures of $3,378,792.

lunacydetector 11 years, 8 months ago

why is it that the majority of concrete used nowadays seems to be cheap and unreliable? who exactly polices this? curbing gets replaced every 2-3 years when in the past, curbs would last 20+ years. driveways in newer areas go to pot after a few years. something doesn't seem right. who can a homeowner go after?

Fred Whitehead Jr. 11 years, 8 months ago

I have to agree with Marion. Stop building those damned yuppie liberal fad roundabouts! These devilish concoctions obstruct traffic at intersections that were functioning normally before the city commissioners decided to follow this stupid and faddish trend. Oh, I forgot, sorry. We are supposed to WALK two miles to the gtocery store and carry home 6 bags of groceries on our handicapped knees. Isn't that correct, Mr. Highberger????

Bone777 11 years, 8 months ago

Growing up in Lawrence, those cracks were a part of growing up. After years of walking on the sidewalks, I still miss a whole lot of stuff when I'm hiking, because it is so in grained for me to look down. "Step on a crack, break you mother's back."

delta77 11 years, 8 months ago

Neglect by the city? Apparently you missed the part about whose responsibility it is to maintain their property! They definitely should go after those property owners who have let their sidewalks go. Why should I have to pay because you're too cheap to keep up your property?

Scott Tichenor 11 years, 8 months ago

I'm sure there are people in East Lawrence that are not physically capable of caring for their sidewalks, but it's my observation plenty of my neighbors simply choose not to. Combine that with the city's laissez faire attitude towards those slum lords who totally ignore the condition of their sidewalks and there's the recipe for the subject of this story.

This is the same city that is responsible for the mess at the corner of 11th and New Hampshire, ie., the "car graveyard" with the sidewalk covered my overgrowth.

So, thanks LJW for the entertaining article pointing out what we already knew. However, nothing is going to change until the people that live in these areas start to care.

Oh, and as far as the problems west of Iowa street, figure it out.

KsTwister 11 years, 8 months ago

The city I will venture to say has misappropriated funds from the streets and sidewalks for years. Neighborhoods would do well to hire an out of city lawyer. If they did their budgets correctly this would not be a problem, I know because a home I bought tacked sidewalk fees into it only to later be charged extra again to put a sidewalk in a neighborhood. Cheap materials are their fault not yours. There are brick sidewalks in Lawrence,make your own and save some cash;just don't tell city hall you have a little extra because they will start looking for ways to relieve you of it.

Godot 11 years, 8 months ago

How much does it cost to pull the weeds from the cracks in the sidewalks, and to do some edging? Property owners, even tenants, should at least do that much, but not many do. I think this deterioration of the sidewalks is as much a symptom of lack of pride in where you live as anything else.

I cannot imagine that property owners would not fix a bulging, cracked sidewalk, simply out of consideration for the neighbors who might use the sidewalk. Those neighbors on the sidewalk are our guests. We should treat them well.

bjamnjm 11 years, 8 months ago

Many years ago, I spent a summer as the hard labor for the city street department fixing potholes and such. There was unbelievable waste in that department. It would have horrified any private business man and if he allowed it to continue would be out of business soon enough. I believe it was summer of 1990 when I worked for them. The full-time guys were making ~$13-$15 per hour and wasted the days away taking breaks and spying on woman at every single pool in town. They wasted and wasted and wasted b/c they could. The worst thing about Lawrence city government or government at any level is that it perceives that it has an endless supply of money. When they run out they just raise taxes. The city could and should maintain sidewalks and still be able to reduce our taxes. What a sad story.

That part about the city being a general contractor to oversee the repairs was a really funny part though. Could you imagine that? The city acting as a general contractor, HAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

When we used to be friends, the current city attorney once said to me that Lawrence was a great place to be in city government due to the constantly growing population which means an ever increasing tax base. This should lead to more services for residents of Lawrence but instead leads to lots of roundabouts. Repairing sidewalks and roads ought to be a basic responsibility of city government, especially this one.

Riv 11 years, 8 months ago

I've seen articles from other cities that are experimenting with rubber sidewalks? Seattle, also Washington DC... They are supposed to last much longer than concrete since they are pretty much immune to cracking. They're made from recycled tires and are available in colors that approximate the usual sidewalk gray.

I've never seen such a sidewalk myself but assume it would be sort of like the floors that gyms install in weight-lifting areas, but much thicker material. Since Lawrence is talking about replacing so much sidewalk, it might be worth trying something different like this in a small number of areas and see how it holds up over a few years.

lunacydetector 11 years, 8 months ago

i take it the west side of lawrence will once again be subsidizing the east side of town while at the same time taking care of their own crappy sidewalks. this is a 'smart growth' cost that only the newer part of town can afford to pay.

....and who said growth never paid? oh, the guys going to washington d.c. to lobby for more federal funds because now they play dumb since lawrence lost population and businesses -their realized goal when elected?

delta77 11 years, 8 months ago

I can picture a snowplow damaging curbs, but not sidewalks.

If you let your sidewalk go, it's no different than letting the grass grow 2 feet high and parking your old washer and dryer out on the front lawn. Time for the city to flex its muscles!

jafs 11 years, 8 months ago

It seems to me that any public areas should not be the responsibility of the property owner. If I have to maintain the sidewalks, then I should have the right to fence them off and keep them private. The city should maintain all public areas. And, of course, they should do a better job than they are doing currently. Finally, most building contractors don't seem to care at all about quality, on many different levels. I'm not sure what the solution is, but it seems completely wrong to me, especially with the prices that are being charged!

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