Mayor's 'walk more' plan stumbles over sidewalks
Some are lacking, some are crumbling
Watch where you’re walking if you stroll to where South Horton Street meets 27th Avenue South in southeast Seattle.
There’s a hole — a chasm big enough to swallow a young child. The hole, where a sidewalk would be under normal circumstances, is littered with a broken wooden beam, a knocked-over barricade and a couple of orange cones just inches from plunging into the unknown.
“It’s been there for at least three to four years,” said Don Rosabout, 25, who lives in the house next to the hole. He pointed to the broken beam. His father, an immigrant from Laos, bought the beam and put it there out of concern for children who play in the small residential neighborhood.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has asked people to “give your car the summer off” by using alternative means of travel, with walking being a top alternative. But across Seattle, many say that with current neighborhood conditions the mayor’s “walk more” plan is not a feasible — or safe — option.
Sidewalk advocates and city officials say the problem is a backlog of work needed to be done on sidewalks and street safety and not enough money.
Walking gets tough in a city where, according to a fact sheet put out by City Councilman Nick Licata, 40 percent of streets lack sidewalks on both sides and 30 percent of streets have no sidewalks at all.
Licata said the city should set new priorities on public funding for capital projects so that infrastructure used daily, such as sidewalks, gets money before large capital projects that would benefit a few people.
“Sidewalks are the threads that physically weave our neighborhoods together; without them we lose touch with the greater community around us,” Licata said.
As for the “sandbox” on South Horton Street,a hole usually made for construction purposes, Cornell Amaya, a spokesman for Seattle Public Utilities, said he did not have a record but crews were being sent to investigate.
Rosabout’s story is the kind of thing that Pat Murakami says makes her blood pressure rise. Although it’s not her neighborhood, the president of the Mount Baker Community Club reported the hole about a year ago.
“I’ve almost gotten to the point where I’m ready to sacrifice myself and break my leg so that I can get money from the city and give it to people to fix these things,” she said.
According to Licata’s fact sheet, the costs to fill in all sidewalks would range anywhere from $270 million to $4.5 billion. That figure does not account for drainage requirements.
According to Seattle Transportation, the city has about $3.43 million set aside for this year for sidewalks in its neighborhood street and sidewalk development funds. That figure will decrease to $2.4 million next year because the sidewalk development fund will decrease, spokeswoman Megan Hoyt said.
When Kate Martin, a landscape planner and designer from Greenwood and pedestrian activist, takes $2.4 million and divides it by the city’s 13 districts, she ends up with roughly $185,000 per year, per district.
“At that rate, it’s a 400-year plan to fill in all the sidewalks in the city,” she said.
But even when residents are willing to pull out their own checkbooks, the process of getting a sidewalk built is difficult because there are no clear guidelines or incentives, Martin said.
That’s why, with the help of other pedestrian activists, Martin applied for a grant to write a “how-to” guide for those who have the funding.
“It’s a sidewalk-for-dummies guide — in a good way because we’re all dummies when it comes to getting a sidewalk.”
For those who can’t afford to dish out money, Martin said the city should consider offering zero-interest loans. She also thinks that the areas that don’t have the money should get more from programs such as the Neighborhood street fund that residents apply for.
That’s not the case right now.
The fund is generally distributed in equal proportions across districts, said Sandra Woods, Seattle Transportation staffer.
Because of their later annexation into the city, however, North, West and South Seattle have the greatest sidewalk needs, said Renee Staton, who works with Safe Walks, a citywide coalition for pedestrian safety.
The process of getting a sidewalk can be convoluted, Woods said.
The application starts with residents and goes to the community council, which selects a limited amount of projects and passes them off to Seattle Transportation, Woods said.
That department sets priorities for the projects according to its newly established criteria and then sends them back to the community council, which selects its top projects, she said.
Then the project goes back to Seattle Transportation, which contacts Seattle utilities and other departments to get a cost estimate and a final feasibility check, Woods said. The cost of the project can increase in the meantime, she said.
Murakami thinks the process is too complicated.
“If you’re working one or two full-time jobs and trying to make ends meet, you’re not going to have time to do that,” Murakami said, adding that low-income areas end up being at a disadvantage in this equation.
“The majority of people are not even aware that such a process exists and wouldn’t know how to go about it,” she said.
But for Martin, the key issue is the small amount of funding.
Staton agrees that there is not sufficient funding. But while the process of applying for money from the fund may be long, she believes that it brings out valuable conversations.
“It’s democracy in action,” she said.
And as with any democracy, there are those who will disagree.
Vlad Oustimovich, an architect and planner from West Seattle, said not everybody wants sidewalks.
When the city wanted to install sidewalks along a residential area by Alki Point a few years ago, residents protested, he said. And certain neighborhoods in Arbor Heights fear that having sidewalks would take away from their parking space, he said.
But the benefits of sidewalks come out in the Highpoint Residential Community, which was redesigned by the Seattle Housing Authority with money from a federal program.
“It was an area that was considered one of the worst neighborhoods in Seattle,” he said, referring to the crime statistics. Now, the newly built houses and wide walkways make it “a really good pedestrian environment.”
Because of the limited funding, Staton thinks it’s important for all the districts to come together and look at the overall problem.
While she thinks that South Seattle is at a greater disadvantage, Murakami agrees.
“We can’t be selfish about this; we need to look at where the need is the greatest or pedestrian safety is at risk,” she said.
— Source: City Councilman Nick Licata
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