CALIFORNIA

City of L.A. slow to repair sidewalks despite complaints and injuries

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 tree-damaged 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 inspections 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 trip-and-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 lesson 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. Co-owner 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."

ben.poston@latimes.com

ryan.menezes@latimes.com

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