Talk­ing the talk on city side­walks

The Denver Post - - OPINION -

Side­walks are a sel­dom ap­pre­ci­ated lux­ury un­til you find your­self walk­ing in the gut­ter on a snowy day.

In Den­ver, cold, wet feet are too com­mon an oc­cur­rence, with an iden­ti­fied side­walk “gap” span­ning the equiv­a­lent of 250 miles (roughly the dis­tance of Den­ver to Grand Junc­tion).

And the is­sue runs much deeper than mere in­con­ve­nience. Proper side­walks al­low for safe pas­sage of kids go­ing to school, en­cour­age the use of pub­lic tran­sit and are crit­i­cal to those with dis­abil­i­ties who can­not nav­i­gate our city with­out con­tigu­ous and un­dam­aged path­ways.

Side­walks also unite com­mu­ni­ties in the true style of front porches.

The City of Den­ver’s 2017 bud­get al­lo­cates pre­cious lit­tle for the crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture — $2.5 mil­lion to­ward what has been es­ti­mated as a $475 mil­lion need.

The city needs to sub­stan­tially over­haul its ap­proach to build­ing and main­tain­ing side­walks, and we ap­pre­ci­ate Mayor Michael Han­cock’s mea­sured ap­proach to this mas­sive is­sue. The Den­ver Post’s Jon Mur­ray has chron­i­cled the pub­lic dis­cus­sion for the past year.

Now it’s get­ting time for ac­tion and Mur­ray re­ported last month that Han­cock has ex­pressed a will­ing­ness to ex­plore more sub­stan­tial ideas. One of the city’s fore­most pro­po­nents of walk­a­bil­ity, Coun­cil­man Paul Kas­mann, said Han­cock could be­come “the first chief ex­ec­u­tive of Den­ver to ad­dress the full breadth of needs that must be met to make Den­ver a truly walk­a­ble city.”

We hope Han­cock is up to the chal­lenge.

One thing is cer­tain, the cur­rent strat­egy is clearly not work­ing. It is up to in­di­vid­ual prop­erty own­ers to build and main­tain the side­walks on their prop­erty.

The city has failed in past decades to re­quire de­vel­op­ers to in­clude side­walks in their pro­jects, and fre­quently per­mit­ted the bud­get-cut­ting use of dys­func­tional quasi-side­walks, known as “Hol­ly­wood-style,” that are at­tached to the road by a slop­ing gut­ter and too nar­row to ac­com­mo­date two pedes­tri­ans at a time.

There are a whole host of is­sues for the city as it tries to ad­dress the need. Some com­mu­ni­ties have big his­toric trees in the pre­ferred right-of-way for a side­walk, or his­toric flag­stone side­walks that are beau­ti­ful but slick and un­even.

Some com­mu­ni­ties lack the com­bined in­come needed to tackle pro­jects of this na­ture, and it would be a shame if the so­lu­tion failed to as­sist poorer neigh­bor­hoods.

That’s how we fear an in­cen­tive pro­gram would play out. The in­cen­tives might tip the scales to al­low a mid­dle-class neigh­bor­hood to mo­bi­lize, but it could leave poorer neigh­bor­hoods be­hind. The pub­lic right now can help iden­tify side­walk woes by us­ing the city’s re­port­ing tool: Walkscope.org.

A ded­i­cated side­walk fee or as­sess­ment on home­own­ers could fund more city in­vest­ment in side­walks, but the prob­lem with fees is that they also dis­pro­por­tion­ately hurt lower-in­come home­own­ers.

Per­haps a com­bi­na­tion of so­lu­tions, a city­wide fee to fully fund side­walks in the poor­est per-capita ar­eas that also pro­vide sub­si­dies to more wealthy com­mu­ni­ties hop­ing to do it them­selves.

But while we don’t pur­port to know the right bal­ance, we do know it is a se­ri­ous im­ped­i­ment to the fu­ture of Den­ver, and one we are glad Han­cock, Kass­man and others are will­ing to tackle, even if it takes sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal will to sug­gest a fee, a tax or a mas­sive pub­lic ex­pen­di­ture.

Pa­trick Tray­lor, Den­ver Post file

The City of Den­ver’s 2017 bud­get al­lo­cates just $2.5 mil­lion for side­walk updates, de­spite an es­ti­mated $475 mil­lion need.

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