Sidewalks Smooth for Well-Heeled

Times Staff Writer

Paul Koplin simply wanted his two children to be able to ride their scooters safely on the sidewalk in front of their Pacific Palisades house. But the walkway was cracked and uneven, with huge sections raised several inches by tree roots.

"They have fallen," he said of his children. "Every time they go out, someone has to be there to tell them they can't go as fast."

So Koplin called the city, and several months later crews with backhoes and cement mixers came to grind down tree roots that were buckling the sidewalk, flatten the surface and pour new concrete.

Now, his kids race their Razors over a pristine, level walkway that is, Koplin said, "as smooth as glass."

For the privilege, Koplin had to shell out $2,200 -- roughly half the cost of the project. Without his contribution, officials told the family, the city might have taken as long as 80 years to fix it.

Of the city's 10,750 miles of sidewalks, officials say nearly half need some form of repair. Throughout the city, long stretches of walkway have crumbled from years of disrepair or been heaved up by tree roots, some the size of an elephant's leg.

The waiting list for repairs is so long -- and the amount of funding available so limited -- that city officials say it would take decades to get to all of them.

To speed the process, Los Angeles last year joined a growing number of cities that have implemented shared-cost programs, in which residents cover a portion of the repair expense to move to the front of the line.

Although residents like Koplin welcome L.A.'s new 50/50 program, many others are perturbed that the city would require property owners to help cover the costs of what they feel should be a routine service.

Some critics also contend that the situation forces poor residents to wait longer for repairs while wealthier counterparts obtain almost immediate results.

"Taxpayers should not have to fix sidewalks," said Eddie Jones, president of the Los Angeles Civil Rights Assn., who owns a town house in Baldwin Hills. "The people of Los Angeles have to pay high property taxes, high gasoline taxes. We pay out enough."

City officials defend the program, saying it has already enabled crews to fix miles of treacherous walkways. They point out that the city annually pays out $4 million to $6 million to trip-and-fall victims with sprained ankles or broken wrists.

In the 50/50 program's first year, which ended June 30, about 530 people signed on. This year, the Bureau of Street Services expects to provide repairs for about 600 homeowners.

Even some residents who have used the program said they were rankled about having to pay.

Pat Kuntz, who lives on Marnice Avenue in Tujunga, contends that the city should manage its funds so that it can repair sidewalks without having to seek help.

"I do think it's unfair that we have to pay for something the city should pay for," he said. "But the general consensus up and down the block was, 'What are we going to do?' We had up-heeled sidewalks."

Jodi Gechtman of Sherman Oaks also was miffed about having to pay, but she was grateful nonetheless.

The tree that caused her sidewalk to buckle was in the city-owned parkway between the walkway and the street. "So, yes, why isn't the city totally paying for this?" Gechtman said.

However, for the $600 it cost her, last year's repair has "literally changed the front of my house." The city removed her dead liquidambar and replaced it with a tulip tree that she said is thriving.

Until about 1975, property owners in Los Angeles were responsible for repairing their own sidewalks, said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. City inspectors cited owners and required them to pay for improvements.

In the mid-1970s, when a federal grant became available, the city offered to fix residents' sidewalks free, and a big backlog developed.

The money ran out in 1978, but by then property owners were convinced that repairs were the government's responsibility. (That year, the passage of Proposition 13 capped the property tax rate, leaving the city no money for sidewalk repairs.)

For more than two decades, city crews responded to homeowners' complaints by affixing temporary asphalt patches to cracked sidewalks. No permanent repairs were made.

"Our sidewalks have been decaying for the past 30 years," said Shoup, who got a taste of the problem when he rented a motorized scooter for his visiting sister, who has multiple sclerosis.

"She couldn't use it on the sidewalks," he said.

City officials said they turned to the 50/50 system after other efforts to gain funding for repairs failed, including a parcel tax proposal that voters rejected in the late 1990s.

In fiscal 2000, the City Council began funding permanent repairs to comply with changes in the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. In the first year, 26 miles of sidewalks were fixed. That later rose to 118 miles in some flush years, but the energy crisis and post-9/11 budget cuts drained available funds. This year's allotment, without contributions from residents, would cover 26 miles of high-priority repairs, particularly near schools and public buildings.

"If we're able to get people to buy in and use that money truly as 50/50, we could do an additional 26 miles," said William A. Robertson, director of the Bureau of Street Services.

Los Angeles is the latest of many cash-strapped cities to ask residents to help pay for repairs. Generally, the programs have been well-received.

In some cities, however, the arrangement has sparked controversy. In Chicago, for example, the 50/50 program was renamed the "shared-cost sidewalk program" after it came to light that thousands of residents were forced to pay for more than half of the sidewalk-replacement cost. Several cities have modified their programs so that the government covers all repair costs in low-income neighborhoods and areas frequented by children. A few communities have also offered more generous 80/20 or 75/25 splits with residents.

While L.A. focuses only on sidewalks, other communities have extended the 50/50 concept to include alley paving, tree planting and removal, and curb and gutter repairs.

A Los Angeles sidewalk crew was in action in early June in Pacific Palisades, using backhoes and picks to break up contorted slabs along Almar Avenue and Junaluska Way. On both sides of Junaluska, at the Koplins' and other homes, the massive root systems of mature camphor trees stretched above ground, with sidewalk slabs slanted precariously atop them.

The operator of a yellow backhoe used the teeth of the vehicle's "bucket" to scrape off old asphalt patches.

Looking like a T. rex jaw, the bucket lifted a section of sidewalk, then dumped it into the back of a truck.

"On a scale of 1 to 10," said Mark Simon, who oversees the 50/50 program, "this section is probably an 8." He described the sidewalks as "undulating," an adjective that somehow seemed too refined for the raggedy terrain.

In his time with the city, Simon said, he has seen plenty of 10s, sidewalks rendered impassable by uplift that resembles mini-mountain peaks.

Sidewalk repair crews attempt to preserve as many trees as possible, removing them only "as a last-ditch effort," Simon said. (Crews removed about 50 trees last year.) Instead, crews grind down the roots to allow the pouring of new slabs.

Mary Peattie, who has lived at Almar and Junaluska for 37 years, said getting her sidewalks replaced was "well worth" paying a bit less than $3,000.

The roots of her camphor tree on Junaluska had not only raised and cracked her sidewalk but also tipped her chain-link fence. The tree was saved.

"My children as well as the neighbor children learned to climb trees on this," she said.

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By the numbers

10,750 Miles of city sidewalks in Los Angeles

5,000 Approximate number of miles in need of repair

83 Number of years it would take the city at current funding levels to fix everything that needs fixing now

$240,000 Estimated cost of repairs, per mile*

$1,300 Average cost to property owner who participates in the 50/50 program

535 Number of property owners who participated in the program's first year

600 Projected number of property owners who will participate this year

* But prices for materials keep rising.

Source: Times reporting. Graphics reporting by Martha Groves

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