L.A. has been slow to fix walk­ways de­spite com­plaints and in­jury

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Ben Pos­ton and Ryan Menezes

Los An­ge­les’ crum­bling side­walks long have sym­bol­ized the chal­lenges fac­ing pedes­tri­ans in this car-dom­i­nated city.

Af­ter years of hear­ing com­plaints about side­walks made im­pass­able by cracks, buck­les and bulging tree roots, of­fi­cials re­cently an­nounced plans to spend nearly $1.4 bil­lion on an am­bi­tious, 30-year re­pair cam­paign.

But fig­ur­ing out which side­walks to fix is prov­ing a ma­jor chal­lenge.

No sur­veys have been done to as­sess the scope of the prob­lem, or where the worst spots lurk in the es­ti­mated 10,000 miles of side­walks that crisscross the city. And the pot of avail­able money may cover only a por­tion of the job.

As they strug­gle to get their arms around the work ahead, Mayor Eric Garcetti — who cam­paigned on a call to im­prove ba­sic ser­vices — the City Coun­cil and public works of­fi­cials must jug­gle spend­ing re­quire­ments re­sult­ing from a re­cent le­gal set­tle­ment and sort out who should be re­spon­si­ble for fu­ture side­walk up­keep and be li­able for in­juries.

At the same time, neigh­bor­hood bat­tles are ex­pected over whether to pre­serve or re­move large fi­cus, mag­no­lia and other trees whose roots have de­stroyed side­walks. Many res­i­dents like the pic­turesque re­lief the tree canopies pro­vide from an of­ten harsh ur­ban land­scape.

The city took re­spon­si­bil­ity for fix­ing treedam­aged side­walks decades ago, and grad­u­ally has fallen fur­ther and fur­ther be­hind on re­pairs. In­stead of re­mov­ing in­va­sive trees and re­build­ing side­walks, work crews in many cases have re­lied on less ex­pen­sive as­phalt patches to smooth over dam­age.

“This is a prob­lem that has fes­tered lit­er­ally for gen­er­a­tions,” said Coun­cil­man Paul Kreko­rian, who heads the bud­get com­mit­tee.

One rough gauge of the size and con­tours of the prob­lem is the more than 19,000 side­walk com­plaints re­ceived over the last five years via the city’s 311 ser­vice re­quest sys­tem.

Most sought re­pairs in older ur­ban and com­mer­cial neigh­bor­hoods or the sub­urbs: down­town L.A., Boyle Heights, Wood­land Hills and Hol­ly­wood. The fewest com­plaints were logged in newer de­vel­op­ments and hill­side neigh­bor­hoods, which are less likely to have side­walks.

A Times anal­y­sis found that in 40% of the cases, no re­pairs have been made. Ac­cord­ing to records and in­ter­views, that’s chiefly be­cause in-

spec­tions were not com­pleted or the side­walks were so se­verely dam­aged that they re­quired com­plete re­build­ing — which the city couldn’t af­ford.

“We are in­ter­ested in ad­dress­ing this prob­lem once and for all,” said City Ad­min­is­tra­tive Of­fi­cer Miguel San­tana, a key bud­get and pol­icy ad­vi­sor to the mayor and City Coun­cil.

The stepped-up pro­gram is the prod­uct of a pro­posed set­tle­ment ne­go­ti­ated with at­tor­neys for the dis­abled, who said im­pass­able side­walks vi­o­lated their clients’ public ac­cess rights.

The city agreed to spend 20% of an an­nual side­walk re­pair bud­get of at least $31 mil­lion at lo­ca­tions in­ac­ces­si­ble to the el­derly, im­paired and those in wheel­chairs, with a large share of that fund­ing ex­pected to go to­ward in­stalling and re­pair­ing curb ramps at corners.

Partly to re­duce the city’s ex­po­sure to law­suits, of­fi­cials also plan to fo­cus over the next two to three years on re­pairs to side­walks near gov­ern­ment build­ings. Then, crews will shift to trans­porta­tion cor­ri­dors, ar­eas near hos­pi­tals and busi­ness dis­tricts, of­fi­cials said.

Residential side­walks next to pri­vately owned homes will come last, and that work prob­a­bly won’t be­gin for four or five years, said Kevin James, pres­i­dent of the Board of Public Works.

Cri­te­ria for pri­or­i­tiz­ing re­pairs are still be­ing de­vel­oped. James said he wants res­i­dents’ com­plaints and pay­outs for side­walk tri­pand-fall claims to be part of the equa­tion.

But of­fi­cials say com­plaints and out­lays for ac­ci­dents — which to­taled $8.3 mil­lion in the five-year pe­riod re­viewed by The Times — give only a par­tial pic­ture of side­walk dam­age.

The Times anal­y­sis iden­ti­fied about 2,500 miles of side­walks where com­plaints were filed. By com­par­i­son, the city once es­ti­mated that nearly twice that amount needed re­pair or re­place­ment.

San­tana, the city ad­min­is­tra­tor, wants public works of­fi­cials to in­spect and as­sess ev­ery side­walk and pri­or­i­tize the most dan­ger­ous lo­ca­tions be­fore re­pairs be­gin un­der the new pro­gram.

But pay­ing for such a study has be­come a non­starter at City Hall.

Sev­eral years ago, of­fi­cials es­ti­mated such an in­ven­tory would cost $10 mil­lion and take up to three years. The idea was aban­doned amid com­plaints from law­mak­ers and their con­stituents that the money would be bet­ter spent ac­tu­ally re­pair­ing side­walks.

The city’s dilemma is partly of its own mak­ing.

Un­der Cal­i­for­nia law, prop­erty own­ers are re­spon­si­ble for fix­ing side­walks. But in the 1970s, with fed­eral fund­ing avail­able, L.A. chose to take on the bur­den of re­pair­ing those that were dam­aged by city trees.

Af­ter the fund­ing dried up, of­fi­cials were hes­i­tant to shift the bur­den back to home­own­ers and busi­nesses, or back lo­cal tax in­creases to pay for up­keep. For sev­eral years, in­clud­ing dur­ing the last re­ces­sion, no city money was ear­marked for side­walks.

San­tana’s of­fice re­cently rec­om­mended that home­own­ers as­sume re­spon­si­bil­ity for up­keep ad­ja­cent to their prop­erty af­ter the city re­builds walk­ways dam­aged by trees, or cer­ti­fies they are in good con­di­tion. And com­mer­cial prop­erty own­ers should pay for re­pairs near their land within a year of re­ceiv­ing no­tice of a prob­lem from the city.

Re­ac­tion to the re­pair dis­cus­sion has been sharply di­vided.

Hol­ly­wood Hills home­owner Sean Don­nel­lan — echo­ing con­cerns voiced by busi­ness own­ers and com­mu­nity ac­tivists — said he took ex­cep­tion to San­tana’s pro­posed “fix and re­lease” pro­gram.

“At some point, I won­der where my prop­erty taxes go,” said Don­nel­lan, who said he must avoid dozens of un­even spots when he pushes his daugh­ter’s stroller through the neigh­bor­hood. “Ev­ery­thing gets bogged down in a sys­tem that, in the end, isn’t re­ally help­ing any of us. And then, in turn, now I am legally li­able for it?”

But Catalina Mor­gan of Northridge is among those who ap­plaud the city’s plan to boost spend­ing.

Dur­ing the last part of her work com­mute, trav­el­ing in a wheel­chair from Union Sta­tion to her of­fice near Spring and 7th streets, Mor­gan pops wheel­ies to get over un­du­lat­ing side­walk slabs. “It’s like a roller coaster,” she said.

She learned a tough les- son in a re­cent fall, af­ter her front wheels snagged on the bot­tom of a curb ramp near her of­fice. Now, she backs down the ramp and swivels around in the cross­walk.

Tree-lined East Ce­sar Chavez Av­enue in Boyle Heights, where shady fo­liage has torn up side­walks, is a can­di­date for re­pairs when the city turns to com­mer­cial dis­tricts.

Guadalupe Cus­tom Strings sits at one end of a six-block stretch that has gen­er­ated 25 re­pair re­quests in the last five years. Coowner Gabriel Teno­rio said he’s tripped more than once on the bro­ken walk­way out­side the store. “You have to be hy­per-vig­i­lant and al­ways be look­ing down,” he said.

Some lifted side­walks have re­mained un­re­paired or been only par­tially fixed, de­spite pay­outs of tens of thou­sands of dol­lars for in­jury claims at those lo­ca­tions, The Times found.

Records show a woman re­ceived $50,000 af­ter claim­ing she was hurt be­cause of a buck­led walk­way on Canyon Drive in the Hol­ly­wood Hills. City crews ap­plied a patch of black as­phalt over a heav­ing ce­ment slab at the site.

On a re­cent af­ter­noon walk, Liam McCor­mack and a friend climbed over the rise. Told of the city pay­out, McCor­mack paused and looked back at the bumpy path­way. If a sin­gle in­jury can cost that much, he said, the city should get on with re­build­ing the side­walk.

“The same thing could hap­pen again.”

Pho­tog raphs by Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

CATALINA MOR­GAN’S COM­MUTE turns into a tricky maze as she nav­i­gates her wheel­chair over the bro­ken side­walks along East Ce­sar Chavez Av­enue in down­town Los An­ge­les. The walk­ways will be el­i­gi­ble for re­pairs within a few years, ac­cord­ing to city plans.

IN DOWN­TOWN L.A., Catalina Mor­gan ap­proaches a deep fis­sure, which she some­times has to pop wheel­ies to get over.

Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

THE CITY has agreed to spend 20% of an an­nual side­walk re­pair bud­get of at least $31 mil­lion on lo­ca­tions now in­ac­ces­si­ble to the el­derly, im­paired and those in wheel­chairs. Catalina Mor­gan ap­proves. “It’s like a roller coaster,” she says of her com­mute on down­town streets.

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