Our sidewalks suck. What can the City do about it?

Peak Johnson Features, Issue 5 0 Comments

The 1900 block of Ringgold Street appears as many other blocks in North Philadelphia. A few people stand on the corner or lean against rowhomes and talk. Many of the houses are abandoned. And the street itself is empty, cracked and jagged. In some places, the sidewalk almost seems to disappear before your eyes. Yet here, and in neighborhoods across the city, locals have grown complacent at the poor condition of their streets. Sometimes, the cracks only become noticeable when you stumble and fall, or see a stroller wheel jam up, or watch as wheelchair-bound neighbors try to navigate their way home.

A few sections of Ringgold Street are cordoned off with yellow tape, indicating that the City is at least trying to fix the sidewalks. But what can be done for a community with so many more pressing problems, in a part of town that often goes overlooked?

In Philadelphia, sidewalks are the responsibility of the property owner, not the City. According to the Philadelphia Code, that entails keeping the sidewalks “graded, curbed, paved and kept in repair at the expense of the owners of the land fronting thereon.” Additionally, anyone who owns a corner property must, if they alter the sidewalk, make sure the curb cut complies with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. (The Streets Department must do the same whenever it works on a given street.)

Homeowners might not know about all this, but for now they shouldn’t worry: The laws governing sidewalk upkeep are weakly enforced. While the Streets Department can issue notices to negligent property owners, this tends to amount to zilch. According to Philadelphia magazine, the City collected no fines from sidewalk violations in 2015.

That’s why David Perri, head of the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I), thought the City should have more authority to hold people accountable. Perri, who formerly led the Streets Department, suggested in January that the City transfer all sidewalk enforcement duties to L&I, allowing his employees to fine those property owners who fail to comply.

Perri’s proposal never came to pass, and he has since backed off the issue. However, the seemingly simple idea of hitting property owners with a fine over bad sidewalks — sidewalks that, after all, make life hard for other citizens, especially the elderly, the disabled, and people with children — raised a host of complicated questions. For one thing, L&I and many other departments are already understaffed and underfunded.

“Commissioner Perri’s comments are the starting point for an important discussion about sidewalk safety,” a Streets Department spokesperson writes in an email. “Homeowners need to understand their responsibility in this regard, and the city can certainly play an active role in enforcement of that responsibility. At the same time, there could be many underlying issues that may prevent the homeowner from addressing this issue.”

There’s the question of affordability — not for the City, but for its people. Imposing a monetary punishment on homeowners for neglecting their sidewalk duties might not raise concerns in Center City, which tends to enjoy good sidewalks anyhow. But in other neighborhoods, the costs of materials and labor for fixing your sidewalks, or of mounting fines if you fail to take action, would come as a heavier burden.

“The sidewalks are the responsibility of homeowners, but the city is well aware that many owners face a host of financial challenges that could inhibit their ability to address the conditions of their sidewalks,” the Streets spokesperson writes.

One point that often goes overlooked is the damage street trees can cause to sidewalk panels. While Ringgold Street doesn’t have many trees, it’s not too hard to find them in neighboring North Philadelphia communities. A few appear as if they are about the crush the houses beneath them, while others grow into the sidewalks and crack the concrete with their roots.

“The solution isn’t to get rid of street trees, of course, although that is unfortunately a common Band-Aid approach,” says David Curtis, co-founder of 5th Square, a local urbanist political action committee. “Rather, any policy attempt to address the secondary problem of broken sidewalks should also address the primary problem of street tree management. Otherwise, we are likely to find ourselves back at square one each time a new street tree is poorly planted.”

Still, pedestrians must be able to get to their destinations safely. And in other cities, stronger sidewalk policies exist.

Over in Oregon, the City of Portland Sidewalk Program oversees the inspection of some 8.6 million square yards of public sidewalks. As in Philadelphia, the Portland City Code states that property owners must keep sidewalks in good repair so that they are free of tripping and other safety hazards. Like our Streets Department, inspectors from the Portland Bureau of Transportation assess sidewalks and notify owners of needed repairs.

In the event repairs are not made within 60 days, however, the Transportation Bureau hires a private contractor to fix the sidewalk and bills the property owner for the costs. A spokesperson for the Transportation Bureau says that the owners generally comply, in part because of outside help: On a weekly basis, the City shares the addresses of sidewalk-deficient properties with private contractors, who often take it upon themselves to send property owners a solicitation and a quote.

“[The contractors are] so responsive with the public that sometimes people wonder if we’re trying to drum up business for them,” the Transportation Bureau spokesperson says. “But we’re complying with the code, we’re responding to Portlanders, and we’re not posting the sidewalk unless it meets our criteria.”

Portland can’t keep up with an entire city’s worth of sidewalks, so it asks citizens to report hazards by phone, email or an app called PDX Reporter, which lets users submit pictures and use GPS to determine the location of the problem. If a report comes in, the City will inspect all of the sidewalks on the block in question.

The New York City Department of Transportation, meanwhile, gives property owners 45 days to repair their defective sidewalks before it hires a contractor (or does the work itself) and hits them with a bill. The department says it also will repair or replace “missing or defective” curbs at no cost to the property owner. Portland assumes responsibility for freestanding curbs, but those attached to sidewalks fall under the purview of the property owner.

Philadelphia, however, doesn’t have the kind of economy and real estate market to make an effective sidewalk policy easy.

“In Philadelphia and in many other cities where the condition of sidewalks is a real problem, issues of enforcement and financing are more complex than they may first seem,” Curtis says. “In many parts of Philadelphia that are remote from Center City and other strong real estate submarkets, there is usually insufficient direct return value for property owners to self-finance sidewalk repairs, unless perhaps the property is intended for sale.”

This relative lack of direct value for many owners is important to acknowledge, Curtis says, and should inform whatever strategy is ultimately decided.

Illustration by Tim Pacific

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