These sidewalks are a public health danger, an interruption of social justice and an eyesore.
For the last 50 years, the City of Los Angeles has not had a consistent policy for fixing buckled and broken sidewalks. In the last six years, the City has been trying figure out what their policy should be for fixing sidewalks.
Los Angeles has the largest roadway and sidewalk system in the nation with 6,500 miles of streets and approximately 10,000 miles of sidewalks. Unfortunately, the City was without a sidewalk repair program for almost thirty years, resulting in approximately 4,600 miles of sidewalks in need of replacement, at an estimated cost of $1.9 billion. On an annual basis, the City spends between $3 and $5 million for trip and fall claims. To solve the problem, the City allocates $10 million for sidewalk repair. At this rate, it will take 190 years to fix the sidewalks, which is absurd.
Decades ago, homeowners were required to build sidewalks through an assessment process under the Vrooman Act of 1885 and under the State Improvement Act of 1911. The city would inspect sidewalks, cite owners, require repairs or bill the owner.
Timeline—City Takes Over Sidewalks
This assessment approach lasted until 1973, when groups of homeowners complained. The cost to repair broken sidewalks was then estimated at $3.5 million annually. Some federal funding was available for the work, and the City Council assumed responsibility for the repairs and later allocated $2 million for fixes.
But the money quickly ran out, and in 1976 the city stopped funding most permanent sidewalk repairs.
A few years later, with both the expanded agency and services firmly entrenched, the City Council decided to continue the program even after federal funds ran out in 1978. It has been in existence ever since.
Since then, some officials have tried to reinstate the practices of the early 20th century with little success.
Timeline—ADA Court Ruling
A class-action suit, Barden v. City of Sacramento, had alleged that Sacramento violated the ADA by allowing its sidewalks to fall into disrepair. The court ruled that the ADA covers “anything a public entity does” and any “normal function of a governmental entity.” To settle the case, Sacramento agreed to dedicate 20 percent of its annual transportation budget for up to 30 years to make public sidewalks accessible. Specifically, the settlement requires, “Changes of level of greater than 1/2 inch, whether caused by tree roots or any other deterioration or displacement of the surface of the Pedestrian Right of Way, will be remedied by providing a ramp with an appropriate slope or by creating a level path of travel.”
Similar ADA lawsuits have since been filed against other cities, including Los Angeles.
Timeline—Who Is Responsible to Fix Sidewalks?
The question of who is liable for broken sidewalks remains complicated. Some homeowners say the city should pay for repairs because it planted trees that destroyed many sidewalks. In response, some city officials say many of the trees belong to property owners.
It was obvious that something had to be done about the condition of the City’s sidewalks. For the City, the challenge came in how to replace the sidewalks without destroying or severely impacting the existing street tree population. In fiscal year 2000/2001, the City Council provided the Department of Public Works, Bureau of Street Services $8 million to develop a sidewalk repair program.
Since the program’s auspicious beginning six years ago, the City has repaired over 400 miles of sidewalks (At this rate, it will take 115 years to repair the sidewalks.), preserving over 52,000 trees that would have otherwise been removed. In addition to the trees that were preserved, the City planted over 30,000 new street trees while removing less than 450 trees in the process.
Site inspections revealed that over 90 percent of damaged sidewalks occurred where tree roots are found. Restricted growing space is the single most important cause of conflicts between tree roots and hardscapes. (Who put liquid amber and ficus trees on their approved tree list? The City of Los Angeles.)
The City’s lawyers view broken sidewalks as the financial responsibility of private property owners. However, the city also has an ordinance requiring that the City make repairs to sidewalks damaged by the roots of City street trees.
The City Ordinance
According to the Los Angeles Municipal Code, Chapter VI, of Section 62.104, if a sidewalk is damaged, two facts need to be determined. If tree roots cause the damaged sidewalk, the city is supposed to fix the sidewalks, at their cost. On the other hand, if the sidewalk is not damaged by tree roots, then the property owner is responsible for repairing the sidewalk, at their cost.
In California, however, property owners are already responsible for sidewalks. California’s Streets and Highways Code states, “The owners of lots or portions of lots fronting on any portion of a public street shall maintain any sidewalk in such condition that the sidewalk will not endanger persons or property and maintain it in a condition which will not interfere with the public convenience.”
City Council—Six Years In Search of a Plan
The Los Angeles City Council has been trying for six years to figure out how to fix the walkways without diverting money from what they view as higher-priority projects.
The proposals included selling bonds to pay for some fixes, requiring homeowners to replace sections broken by tree roots, or creating a point-of-sale program that would require the buyer or seller of a property to get a “safe sidewalk certificate” that would require repairs before the close of escrow. There was also a proposal to do nothing and continue making temporary repairs.
City Council—Fifty/Fifty Plan
The council first created a “50-50” sidewalk repair program in 2004, allowing property owners and the city to split reconstruction costs evenly. The program, which focused only on residential streets, ended five years later as city leaders scrambled to cut costs during a major economic downturn.
City Council—75% Resident-Plan
Given the financial crisis facing the City budget, a new Council proposal would focus on heavily trafficked streets, such as transit corridors and major commercial boulevards. This proposal calls for property owners to pay up to 75% of the cost of repairing their sidewalks.
City Council—100% Resident Plan
Another Councilman has been making news recently for his proposal to hand over the maintenance costs, and liability issues, for the city’s crumbling sidewalks to the homewoners owning the houses adjacent to the sidewalks. Simply, people that own a house are responsible for the repair of the sidewalk in front of their house. If someone trips and is hurt it is the homeowner’s liability.
City Council—Point of Sale Plan
Last year, this same Councilmember proposed “a point of sale” plan where the cost of replacing the sidewalk would be included in any housing purchase so that the sidewalks would be repaired, if needed, before title is passed. It would take decades, but in about three decades the city would have a “new” series of sidewalks.
City Council—AB 1290
It has been mentioned that AB 1290 money could be used for repairing the sidewalks. AB 1290 money is to be used for “economic development and the elimination of blight” — but the decisions on what that means has been left up to L.A. City Council members.
At the moment, there is little agreement on how best to proceed.
City Staff Policy
While the City Council is trying to figure out what to do about the sidewalks, at the staff level, the policies and goals are focused on expanding tree canopy cover while repairing the City’s damaged sidewalks.
Unlike asphalt repairs for streets, concrete sidewalk repairs are not done at single locations. Rather, requests are collected and are put together to create a large grid. Once funding becomes available, the Street Maintenance Division can begin addressing the necessary repairs throughout the city’s various neighborhoods. (In my neighborhood, I know of no sidewalks that have been repaired.)
If a driveway apron is broken because of City trees, the damaged driveway receives an interim asphalt repair. However, if homeowner wishes to make the repairs themselves, they may apply for a permit through the local Bureau of Engineering office.
If a homeowner’s curb, gutter, and sidewalk are all raised by a tree in the parkway and the homeowner wants all the concrete repaired, but does not want to lose their shady tree, the homeowner may contact someone from the Urban Forest Division. It is the City’s policy to preserve all parkway trees unless they present a safety hazard. In most all other cases, tree roots are pruned only on the side of where the concrete repairs are to take place.
Decades ago, the city planted many liquid amber and ficus trees. They are now the ones buckling and breaking the sidewalks around town. The City’s Street Services can repair sidewalks all over the city, but with these trees, the problem will just return. Their root systems are relentless destroyers of sidewalks. The Urban Forest Division must accept the fact that many of these trees, particularly the ficus trees, must be removed.
A Bureau of Street Services bureaucrat in 2011 said it would take 18 months and $1 million just to figure it out what sidewalks need to be repaired. Now, other City officials are saying it would take three years to complete and cost more than $10 million. Of course, this is ridiculous. By using a GPS, you could have citizens email photos and addresses of the broken sidewalks. With students on bikes, you could get the photos and addresses of the remainder of the worst-case sidewalks.
With the exception of the tree removal, typical sidewalk repairs in the City of Los Angeles cost between $1,500 and $2,000. In addition, the City permit is $600.
Action Plan—Authority and Organization
For the sidewalks in the City of Los Angeles to get repaired in a fair and timely fashion, it is necessary to follow a totally different approach than in the past.
The City Council needs to establish an independent Agency or Authority to be responsible for the repair of all pedestrian pathways in the City. (Currently, one has to deal with the Bureau of Engineering, Public Works, and Urban Forest Division.)
The Council needs to appoint someone strong, like Jim Hankla, to head up the Agency. (Jim was in charge of the Alameda Corridor Authority – he brought the project in on time and under budget.)
This Agency would have full authority of repairing the pedestrian pathways on a “design build” basis. They could determine the contractor(s) to do the work, the trees to be saved or removed, and the material to use for repair (e.g. cement, rubber, and decomposed granite) and the tree types that would be used for replacement.) No permit would be required.
The Agency would have a life of ten (10) years, at which point it would end. The Agency would determine the priority of which sidewalks to fix and in what order.
The Agency would have a limited staff. The majority of the money would go to the contractors doing the work.
Action Plan—Cost and Source of Funds
For this ten-year program, it is assumed that the cost of this repair work for ten years would be $2 billion. The responsibility for providing these funds would come from two new sources, split equally between the City and the citizens.
The citizens would fund their share from a $1 billion bond issue, which would be assessed via the annual property residential and commercial property tax.
The City’s $1 billion would come from three sources: (1) $10 million annually that has been historically spent on sidewalk repair; (2) an amount TBD annually from AB 1290 (redevelopment) funds; and (3) a sale and leaseback program of City excess land and buildings. (The main City Hall has a value of $350 million.) I realize that these buildings are in essence “owned” by the citizens and they will have to make the lease payments, however, I believe the differentiation is important. At the same time, it allows the citizens to continue to pressure their City government to be more efficient and cost effective.
Action Plan—Shifts Responsibility Back to Citizens
At the conclusion of this ten year program, the City ordinance should be amended to be in conformity with State law and require the adjoining property owner to fix the sidewalks and be responsible for and trip and falls.
The advantages of this approach are that the sidewalks would be fixed within a date certain; the money for fixing the sidewalks would be committed up front; with the ten year time limit, the total cost of the program would be less; the Agency would have the authority necessary to complete the job efficiently and cost effectively; and in a small way, citizen confidence could be restored in the City. Let’s hope so!!
Photo credits: All photos by author