$1.6 Billion the City Doesn't Have is the Cost of Fixing Sidewalks

Paved With Good Intentions

Ari Bloomekatz in the Los Angeles Times provides additional perspective on an issue that KCET's Vince Gonzales (and these pages) raised earlier this year - the crumbling of the city's sidewalks as a sign of the city's decomposing leadership.

Sidewalk repair is not a new issue, Los Angeles residents were complaining about sidewalk damage 40 years ago.

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The principal villain then and now is the ficus tree - the Indian laurel fig - with its distinctive white trunk, dark green leaves, and ever-present shade. That these trees were equally distinctive for their massive roots didn't stop the city from planting them everywhere in the 1950s and 1960s. Ficus trees were relatively cheap, fast growing, disease resistant, and evergreen.

City officials could afford to accentuate the positive about ficus trees because they weren't directly responsible for repairing the sidewalks that were going to be cracked by ficus roots one day. Under California's 1911 Improvement Act, the city was able to put the cost of repair work on the owner's property tax bill.

That was true while the trees were saplings, but by 1974, the city's many miles of damaged sidewalks, its many angry constituents, and the availability of some federal dollars led the city council to accept sole responsibility for maintaining sidewalks.

Just what happened then is murky. In some Los Angeles Times reports (here, here, and here), the federal funding ran out, although funding from other sources continued through 1978, when sidewalk replacement apparently stopped. But the decision to accept responsibility for sidewalk repairs was never reversed.

And the city never again went after grant funds for sidewalk repairs, although many cities did, using the remnants of Nixon-era Federal Revenue Sharing and the Community Development Block Grant program. As Vince Gonzales found, even when federal stimulus funding was available in 2009 for "shovel-ready" construction projects, the Bureau of Street Services failed to apply.

[Let's pause here for a rumination on mythic data. Since 1997, city staff members have quoted the same set of numbers to describe the sidewalk repair problem. The number of miles of sidewalks in Los Angeles is either "more than 10,000 miles" or 10,750 miles to-the-mile. And the miles of damaged sidewalks is always "roughly" 4,600 miles. After 14 years of new commercial and residential development and 14 years of more sidewalk crumbling, these numbers have never changed. Given the realities of how city departments typically deal with unpleasant data, the sidewalk repair problem is probably much worse than reported by the Times in 1998 or 2011.]

Sidewalk repair is a problem whose precise dimensions are unknown, and it has a gaggle of equally vague solutions.

Some council members, echoing Mayor Villaraigosa's plan for fixing streets, would borrow to pay for all or part of the estimated $1.6 billion in sidewalk repairs. Other council members want to send sidewalk maintenance back to property owners though a combination of code enforcement penalties and a "point of sale" requirement that would compel sellers to put their sidewalk in good repair before the property is sold. While this has a certain libertarian appeal, the practical effects are harder to calculate.

The mostly likely outcome will be what Los Angeles has done for a generation at least - temporary asphalt patches covering up more sidewalk decay.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Auntie P. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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