Mean streets

South Seattle confronts the baffling politics of sidewalks.

WHEN I WALK OUT my front door and look at the sidewalk on my street, it feels like I'm in the Third World. In fact, I've never seen such weirdly shoddy conditions in the Third World. On my street in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood, a reasonably decent patch of sidewalk will meander for three or four houses and will then erupt into jumbled planes of concrete before disintegrating entirely into rubble. Forget about curbs; the thin beds of greenery known as planting strips blend imperceptibly into the street, becoming parking stalls. And that's where there is a sidewalk. Much of the street doesn't have one.

City residents have complained for years about deteriorating or nonexistent sidewalks, but finally a group in the South End is shouting a little louder than usual. A new state branch of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, has been holding neighborhood meetings and pressuring City Council members for sidewalks in the Rainier Valley. Last week, nine members and staffers staged a sit-in in the reception area of City Council chambers, chanting solidarity slogans in Spanish and English and refusing to leave until all nine council members scheduled meetings with them. They scored only one concrete date, from a smiling Nick Licata, who spent a few minutes with the crowd before security kicked them out as the office closed. (Council member Richard Conlin, who also made a friendly appearance, already met with the group last month.)

Rainier Valley resident and retired Headstart teacher Velma Stewart voices a common lament: "I go to other neighborhoods, it looks so decent. Come to our neighborhood, we have to walk through the mud to get to our homes."

The drawbacks of sidewalkless streets are particularly evident to parents, who have to decide whether to let their kids walk or ride bikes in traffic or forbid them from moving around their own neighborhood. Walking, pushing a stroller, or maneuvering a wheelchair while remaining constantly vigilant for cars is no fun either.

ALTHOUGH MOST people in the South End see race and class at the heart of the city's neglect, the politics of sidewalks is actually more complicated, and more baffling. A map at the city's transportation department highlights in red every street in Seattle that doesn't have a sidewalk. The effect is striking: The largest expanse of red, by far, is in the North End. Almost none exist between 85th and 145th streets. The South End is more patchy: A cluster of sidewalkless streets appear here and there, the largest being on Beacon Hill. Also blocked out in red is a sizable swath in West Seattle below the ferry terminal.

"There are probably twice as many households in the North [than in the South] that don't have sidewalks," Conlin says as he warns that ACORN's focus on the South alone neglects a bevy of potential allies.

Longtime Haller Lake resident Warrant Dawson recalls that sidewalks have been the number one issue for residents in three separate neighborhood plans, the first done as far back as 1964. His neighbor Sue Linnabary, land-use chair for the Haller Lake Community Club, is particularly concerned about the lack of sidewalks on the northern stretch of Aurora, which many people traverse on their way to catch buses. "We think it's outrageous that the city does not have sidewalks even on busy streets," she says.

Amazingly, the city maintains that sidewalks—a basic amenity—are not its responsibility, or at least have not been up until now. "The city has never been in the business of building sidewalks," says Peter Lagerway, the expert on the issue at the city transportation department. Instead, developers build sidewalks, often because city regulations demand it. Problem is, developers built the northern and southern reaches of the city when they were part of unincorporated King County and the county did not require sidewalks in what were then rural neighborhoods. So developers were left to do as they pleased. While some built sidewalks anyway to add property value (but only on the 3 or 4 or 10 houses of their particular projects), developers often went for cheapo versions without curbs. The result, predictably, is a mess.

Yet, the city has done nothing about this mess in the some 50 years since it annexed the North and South Ends. In fact, even now in most residential zones it doesn't make developers build sidewalks for projects that have fewer than 10 dwellings.

The city complains that sidewalks have become much more expensive because of upgraded drainage requirements, and notes they are expected to get even more costly due to new demands under the Endangered Species Act to keep stormwater salmon-friendly. A sidewalk for a single block currently costs as much as three-quarters of a million dollars; sidewalks for everywhere in the city that doesn't have them would run an estimated billion dollars. And that's only for building them, not maintaining them, a responsibility that is technically supposed to rest with property owners. (Too bad if low-income residents struggle to find money for leaking roofs, never mind cracked sidewalks.)

Still, council member Conlin concedes that the city "can't keep throwing up its hands" at the problem. "We've got to start funding things," he says. Chair of the council's neighborhoods committee, he pledges "a personal commitment in this next year to see that we actually take this issue up, and to take it seriously." One hopeful sign is a planned city experiment with low-cost sidewalk models that use plantings to help with drainage and wheel-stops, like those found in parking lots, instead of curbs.

That's not enough to assuage ACORN members, however. At the sit-in last week, a welder named Matias Barajas informed Conlin that the group will settle for nothing less than concrete projects. "We have to keep going until we have answers."

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