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Red tape a stubborn obstacle to sidewalk repair

Peter Griswold wants volunteers to report broken concrete in lieu of a $10-million survey, but officials are wary.

September 16, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • Peter Griswold is leading a campaign to have volunteers report broken sidewalks across the city in lieu of a $10-million survey. This sidewalk, in the 3300 block of Redwood Avenue, has been broken by tree roots.
Peter Griswold is leading a campaign to have volunteers report broken sidewalks… (Miriam Holzman-Sharman )

Like lots of people, Peter Griswold of Marina del Rey was flabbergasted when he read that City Hall wanted to spend $10 million on a three-year survey of cracked and crumbling sidewalks in Los Angeles.

He sent me an email titled:

"VOLUNTEERS FOR SIDEWALK BRIGADES."

"There are so many community and social organizations" that could do the survey "for nearly no costs," Griswold wrote.

But judging by his neighborhood, he said, something needed to happen. Griswold suggested I meet up with him on the 800 block of Coeur D'Alene Avenue in Venice to check out some of the bad pavement that the city should be dealing with.

I got there a minute before Griswold on Thursday, but I didn't need him to spot the half-block stretch of sidewalk — outside an elementary school, no less — that looked like a Himalayan passage, with pavement dangerously peaking and plummeting.

As I surveyed the chaos, Griswold, a 70-year-old retiree, sped up on a Schwinn bike and hopped off, wearing shorts and a floppy blue Coast Guard Auxiliary hat, reporting for duty. He grabbed a portable GPS out of a bag and began punching the controls as he stood over a spot where tree roots had lifted the sidewalk 10 inches.

"You hit this here," he said, "and you go over there."

Anyone of average intelligence, he said, could be taught in one hour how to use a GPS to record the precise location of bad sidewalk.

"I could do a whole neighborhood in two days," said Griswold, who suspected he could recruit the Knights of Columbus, Shriners and Neighborhood Councils to join the ranks of his civilian sidewalk brigade.

An editorial in The Times, following an article by my colleague David Zahniser, suggested that very thing. And several council members have asked the Department of Public Works to consider a range of options that might get the job of identifying problem sidewalks done in less than three years without spending $10 million.

A Department of Public Works representative told me that using volunteers could get complicated for many reasons, including lack of expertise on the part of volunteers and the challenge of evaluating the information they submit. But the department hasn't ruled out some form of public participation.

Whatever course is chosen, it would be nice to get things moving. Los Angeles has 5,000 miles or so of bad sidewalk, and the fix could run as much as $1.5 billion. But this being the era of budget crunch triage, no money has been set aside, despite the fact that disabled access is a problem and about 2,500 claims are filed against the city each year from people who have taken a tumble.

It's a sorry state of affairs when City Hall falls down on the job of a basic service like sidewalk maintenance, delaying the inevitable for years until it becomes a crisis. Are we headed for a day when, if you want a pothole fixed, you'll have to grab a rake and do it yourself?

But Griswold, who worked as a construction estimator for the Department of Water and Power for 32 years, thinks enough people will volunteer to get the survey job done when they realize it could save them $10 million. I noted that their good deed might ultimately be punished with a tax down the road if a bond measure is floated to pay for the sidewalk fixes, or with a big bill to pay if city officials go with a proposal to make homeowners responsible for their own repairs.

But Griswold was still ready to lead the brigade.

"I'm a volunteer," he said, telling me he has pounded nails with Habitat for Humanity and taught boating for the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Griswold and I went on our own little patrol, driving north of Venice Boulevard on the east side of Lincoln Boulevard. Parts of Maplewood Avenue's sidewalks looked like broken roller coasters, with cheap asphalt patchwork used as a temporary fix on the worst spots.

Ellen Cox, who was riding her bike in the neighborhood, gave a thumbs-down on a $10-million survey.

"You could get one person on every block to take pictures," she said.

Cox directed us to the nearby intersection of Appleton Way and Maplewood Avenue, where the sidewalk looks like a mogul run. Bernard Matier, who sat on his porch, said he can't afford to fix the sidewalk, and when he called downtown for help, he was told City Hall is broke too.

His next-door neighbors, Jason Sharman and Miriam Holzman-Sharman, have a 50-foot stretch of sidewalk that looks like it was hit by a major earthquake. To Sharman, spending $10 million to tell him and other people they've got a problem is "just ludicrous."

Sharman called City Hall and offered to cut down a tree that's destroying the sidewalk and threatening a gas supply line. He said he was referred to a city arborist who told him that would be illegal.

"We are stuck, and it's so dangerous," said Sharman, who fears someone will go head over flip-flops and sue him. "You pay your taxes and that seems to be the most elementary thing you would want taken care of, that they keep the sidewalk clear and safe. It seems like a basic government function."

Once upon a time, maybe.

Sharman's wife sent me a photo of a sidewalk in her neighborhood that's worse than her own. Bill Gaidzik, the homeowner, told me his problems got worse three years ago when a city crew trimmed one of the trees causing all the damage.

What, that didn't help?

No, said Gaidzik. The city used heavy equipment that ruptured more sidewalk.

Gaidzik, who works in tech support, said he's all for a citizen-run survey, and said it would be easy for City Council district offices to set up a database where residents can send information.

Or, said Gaidzik, if the city still wants to hire a contractor for the job, "I'll do it for $9 million."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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