Repair crumbling sidewalks to boost neighborhoods
The Kansas City Star
Our poor, neglected, decaying sidewalks
Katie Greer loves walking her dog Ziggy on visits to Budd Park in northeast Kansas City. But it’s not exactly smooth sailing to get there. The sidewalks along Anderson Avenue are cracked, filled with weeds and — at several spots — have been heaved many inches out of the ground by mature trees.
“It can be very challenging to walk down the sidewalk,” says Greer, president of the Indian Mound Neighborhood Association.
Greer and Ziggy aren’t alone. Sidewalks get little respect when it comes to rebuilding our neighborhoods in the Kansas City area.
Cities aren’t aggressive enough in inspecting the pathways or replacing them, no matter how decayed they have become. “We don’t want to be the sidewalk policeman,” explains Robert Rowdy, public works director for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County.
Homeowners often care little about problematic sidewalks because they can cost thousands of private dollars to fix. Yet sidewalks are an essential component of livable communities. They connect neighbors with neighbors and often customers with businesses.
No matter the city, sidewalks suffer from similar problems. The most common is that large trees — planted to provide shade and beauty — crack the pathways and leave large differences in heights between individual slabs. Many sidewalks also settle over time, creating more tripping hazards.
Officials say it’s especially tough to improve the walkability of the region’s sidewalks because of the lack of public funds for infrastructure projects. For example, Kansas City Mayor Sly James recently said his city ought to be spending $20 million a year to repair sidewalks, while only a few million dollars actually are set aside for that priority.
Last week The Star interviewed the public works directors for the area’s three largest cities. The take-away from those discussions: Sidewalk improvement is tough, but it still needs to be done, given the importance of smooth sidewalks to so many residents — especially the region’s seniors.
- In Kansas City, homeowners are responsible for paying for most sidewalk repairs and are seldom eager to do that. And the city has no organized sidewalk inspection program.
The city sometimes acts when citizens complain, which can result in an order for a sidewalk to be fixed. A homeowner can get the permits and then do the work. But more often a city-hired contractor does the job, with an added 16 percent charge for the city’s oversight of the project. A homeowner usually gets 10 years to pay the bill, which can range up to several thousand dollars.
The city also is held back by the reality that many of the oldest sidewalks are in the urban core, with its large share of low-income residents, renters and foreclosed houses.
- In Overland Park, residents are more fortunate: Their taxes help finance a city program that repairs and replaces sidewalks. That’s superior to Kansas City practice because it can encourage homeowners to report troubling pathways, although permanent repairs still can take years to occur in Overland Park.
That city also does much of its sidewalk replacement as part of its effort to repave streets and put in new curbs. For example, one of the city’s upcoming street improvement programs will focus on an area west of Mission Road and 103rd Street, leading to the repairs of deficient sidewalks in those areas.
Overland Park also uses grinder machines to smooth out some small height differences in sidewalk slabs, usually caused by tree roots.
However, Kansas City doesn’t use the machines, partly because that cost is put back on homeowners who might not like paying for the work and because of concern that the grinding might weaken the sidewalk and cause a more costly repair for the homeowner. The result is that Overland Park takes care of a problem for a few years or more until a permanent repair can be made; Kansas City unfortunately just allows a tripping hazard to remain for those years.
- In Kansas City, Kan., the Unified Government has a “50-50” program that splits the cost of repairing sidewalks with homeowners. But even though that option is more appealing than Kansas City’s 100 percent lug on homeowners, very few residents have taken advantage of it. That’s because Kansas City, Kan., homeowners have to make the payment up front, not over a multi-year period.
In an encouraging move, the government will offer an even more generous payment if five or more homeowners in a neighborhood agree to have some of their sidewalks replaced. That could lead to more improvements, more quickly.
The government also is working on a sidewalk master plan showing the conditions of the pathways and where the city could invest in upgrades; the public gets its first look at the plan later this month. However — and this sadly isn’t surprising — the city has very little money at this time to put in place major recommendations in the plan.
Sidewalks in the metro area deserve more attention from public officials and from homeowners. Cities should have systematic inspections. They also should increase the amount of capital improvement money set aside to repair these crucial pathways.
Well-maintained sidewalks can last up to 50 years. The fact that this region has so many sidewalks in such bad shape is proof we have failed to deal with this issue for far too long.