Is there a better symbol of Los Angeles’ mismanagement than its miles and miles of sidewalks broken, buckled and twisted by tree roots? These concrete chasms and mini-mountains have made many of L.A.'s walkways nearly impassable for people in wheelchairs or those pushing strollers or those who are less sure-footed. Yet the mayor and City Council have consistently punted on long-term, politically difficult decisions required to address the problem, and their inaction costs taxpayers about $4 million a year to settle trip-and-fall lawsuits.
Now, it looks like the city is finally moving forward. There are an estimated 4,600 miles of sidewalk that need repair, and the city set aside $10 million this year for sidewalk reconstruction; officials anticipate spending the same amount in future years. That is a return to pre-recession funding levels. In addition, Councilmen Mitch Englander and Joe Buscaino are considering putting a $4.5-billion bond measure on the November ballot to pave streets and fix most of the damaged sidewalks.
This new attention to sidewalk repair is a good start. But unless the City Council and mayor address the real reason for the backlog, they’ll simply patch over the problem.
Forty years ago, the city made a promise to fix sidewalks damaged by tree roots, taking the responsibility for doing so away from homeowners, who had previously been expected to handle such repairs. That seemed reasonable at the time because the homeowners had, for the most part, not planted the trees that were causing the problems.
But the city never kept its promise; officials failed to budget the money to do the job. Sadly, it now appears that the only way Los Angeles will ever have a consistent sidewalk maintenance program is to return the responsibility for repairs to property owners.
This page doesn’t propose passing the damaged sidewalks back to residents in their current condition. Previous city officials made a commitment to fix tree-related damage, and the current leadership should follow through, either by consistently funding repairs each year and slowly reducing the backlog, or by issuing a bond or using some other financing mechanism to fund large-scale reconstruction. Then, as the repairs are made — addressing both the sidewalk damage and the tree problem that is causing it — the responsibility for all future walkway maintenance should be transferred back to the property owners.
Homeowners and business owners may hate this idea. Sidewalks, after all, are open to anyone and are a common benefit that, in theory, should be maintained by the city for the collective good. Why saddle property owners with the expense and liability of maintaining a public space?
One reason is that sidewalks are also assets; a smooth sidewalk adds curb appeal and increases the value of one’s property. But there’s another, more practical reason to make property owners pay. California’s Street and Highway Code states that lot owners shall maintain the sidewalks, and the majority of jurisdictions follow that law. Often the cities that have deviated from the law — such as Los Angeles — haven’t budgeted sufficiently for maintenance and have ended up with really bad sidewalks. That’s why during the recession, some cities that had assumed responsibility, such as Placentia in Orange County and Fremont in Alameda County, handed the job back to property owners.
Los Angeles’ 40-year experiment with sidewalk care has proved to be a disaster. L.A., like most cities, was essentially built by developers, who laid the sidewalks, planted the trees and then turned over those amenities to the city and property owners. For most of the city’s history, it followed state law and directed property owners to fix cracks and crevices in the sidewalks.
By the 1970s, it was clear that the developers’ choices of street trees, particularly the ficus, were destroying the sidewalks. Unhappy property owners began protesting the expense of the repairs. When 52 members of the Leimert Park Property Owners Assn. petitioned the city to replace 100 elms and fix the sidewalk damage caused by the trees, the City Council ended up passing an ordinance in 1974 granting free repairs for sidewalks buckled by trees. (Property owners retained responsibility for all other sidewalk repairs.) The city initially used federal funds to cover the expense, but when those ran out, city leaders didn’t replace the funds.
Within three years, there was a backlog of 70,000 sidewalk repairs. For nearly three decades, city workers used street asphalt to patch cracks. In 1998, the City Council voted to put a $769-million bond (about $20 a year for the typical homeowner) on the ballot to repair broken sidewalks, but voters rejected the measure. It wasn’t until 2000 that the City Council for the first time budgeted $9 million to fix about 46 miles of sidewalks.
Forty years ago, this page praised the City Council’s decision to take responsibility for sidewalk repairs, writing that “it seems proper that the city should make certain that the public’s sidewalks are kept in safe and proper repair.” But by now it has become clear that Los Angeles cannot and will not effectively maintain its sidewalks. The mayor and City Council must commit to finish the work their predecessors promised, and then return the care of sidewalks to the property owners for the long-term good of the city.