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A Deeply Rooted Problem

FRIDAY REPORT: An in-depth look at people and policies
shaping Los Angeles County

After years of scanty maintenance, L.A.'s sidewalks are deteriorated. November ballot measure could provide nearly $770 million for repairs.

August 14, 1998|SUE McALLISTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sidewalks--those humble, commonplace elements of daily life--are finally getting some attention and, in the city of Los Angeles, a place on the same November ballot as candidates for governor and Congress.

Sidewalks are those urban sanctuaries where you expect to be able to chat with a neighbor, push a stroller, teach your child to ride a bike, or go for a jog unimpeded by parked cars and other obstacles. But all over Los Angeles, sidewalks have become obstacles unto themselves.

In countless locations citywide--from Elysian Park to South Los Angeles, from Westchester to Van Nuys--broken, displaced concrete is literally rising up and threatening injury to pedestrians, wheelchair users, skaters, young and old, rich and poor.

The city of Los Angeles has about 10,000 miles of sidewalks, enough to stretch from here to Maine, back to L.A. again and over to Florida. Of those many miles, officials say, nearly half are in trouble, passive victims of intruding tree roots and other forms of wear and tear.

Frequent Complaints

Although crime and politics get the headlines, members of the Los Angeles City Council say they hear from their constituents about troublesome sidewalks about as often as anything else.

"Every council office I'm sure will tell you one of the most frequently raised complaints . . . is the problem with sidewalks," said Councilman Mike Feuer, whose staff receives hundreds of sidewalk-related calls a year.

The City Council has been discussing how to pay for repairs to more than 4,600 miles of deteriorating footpaths for many years. Earlier this month, over the opposition of Mayor Richard Riordan and four council members, a majority of the council approved putting the sidewalk measure on the Nov. 3 ballot. If it passes, it will provide nearly $770 million to mend all damaged sidewalks over 20 years.

The funding, in the form of a special tax, would cost property owners an average of $21 annually, officials say. Proponents say these funds would also allow the city to comply with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, which mandates construction of wheelchair-accessible curbs, among other things.

The special tax must be approved by two-thirds of voters to be implemented. Any concerted opposition could doom the measure, but proponents are optimistic about its chances.

Claims Cost Millions

"Right now my reaction is, hell yes, for $20 a year I'd be happy to contribute," said Larry Rudick, president of a West Los Angeles homeowners group whose members have long struggled with sidewalk repair issues. "I'm really surprised on a couple of our streets that we haven't had serious accidents."

Citywide, there are plenty of accidents. Los Angeles spends between $2 million and $4 million each year settling claims brought by people who have tripped and fallen on ill-kept sidewalks. Of those that need repair, the vast majority are damaged by tree roots which, in their unending search for nourishment and space, break apart the concrete panels of sidewalks and force them upward.

In some places, broken slabs jut as much as 18 inches into the air. On streets lined by many trees with shallow, aggressive root systems, sidewalks eventually resemble undulating pathways over rolling hills.

"It's truly a citywide problem," said Greg Scott, director of the city's Bureau of Street Services. "Sidewalks continue to deteriorate and tree roots continue to grow and there hasn't been a comprehensive program since [the mid-1970s]."

City law holds property owners responsible for repairing sidewalks and other areas between their property and the street curb, except when damage is caused by city-owned trees, in which case the burden of repair falls on the city. But with no funds available for major concrete repair, residents are told they'll need to pay for anything more than a patch job themselves.

"A lot of people around here probably don't have the money to do it themselves," said George Ruiz, who lives a few blocks west of Exposition Park on a street where tree roots have buckled the sidewalk. "I thought it was the city's problem at first, because it's city property, but apparently not."

Passage of Proposition 13 brought an end to the city's preventive root-trimming program. Years ago, the city cited property owners whose land was fronted by a damaged sidewalk, and if the owners failed to take prompt action themselves, the city would do the work and add the cost to the owners' property taxes. Then, in the late 1970s, the city agreed to repair sidewalks for free, but funds for that program dried up in less than a year. Officials began the citation procedure again, until public outcry motivated the City Council to declare a moratorium on the practice.

These days, all the Bureau of Street Services has the money to do is patch sidewalks with asphalt, a temporary solution designed to decrease safety risks.

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