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When the hard winter rains came, so did Lake Hawley.
The lake emerged in a northern, out-of-the-way section of Normal Heights separated by a canyon from Interstate 8. The rains brought water at least ankle-deep to the sidewalks of Hawley Boulevard and North Mountain View Drive, said Suzanne Ledeboer, who lives in the neighborhood. When the rains stopped, the water stayed a while.
“It just kind of seeped away,” Ledeboer said.
Today, Lake Hawley is drained. New sidewalks at the intersections, complete with wheelchair ramps, front new pipes designed to whisk away water. The flat terrain makes it hard to solve the drainage problem completely, but you can now walk the sidewalks without soaking the cuffs of your pants.
Lake Hawley’s demise came after the city studied the area’s sidewalks, the only study of its kind in recent memory. Seven years ago, the city examined the sidewalks of North Park, South Park and Normal Heights and found Lake Hawley was one of the 22 worst sidewalk sections in those neighborhoods. It drained the lake. A recent walking tour of the other sidewalks-of-shame identified in the study showed numerous fixes, and most of the locations didn’t appear to have major problems.
These results reveal both the promise and the haphazardness of sidewalk efforts citywide. Sidewalks in those three central San Diego neighborhoods got measured by the city. Repairs got done. But the city hasn’t measured other places.
No comprehensive evaluation of sidewalks across San Diego has ever happened, a City Council staffer told a council committee dedicated to addressing sidewalks and other infrastructure at its first meeting last month. Doing one is near the top of the committee’s to-do list.
Sidewalks in Normal Heights have become something of a hobby to Ledeboer. She moved to the neighborhood from Los Angeles 16 years ago after retiring from teaching. Normal Heights, she said, felt like a city.
“I could walk to all the basics,” Ledeboer said. “Plus they had six used bookstores.”
She began taking pictures of the contractor stamps on the sidewalks, visual markers of the community’s history. That led her to join the neighborhood planning group.
She and others began to advocate for better sidewalks. Their councilwoman at the time, Toni Atkins, was receptive. Atkins helped cobble together $226,000 for a study of Normal Heights and nearby neighborhoods’ sidewalks.
“I think it came down to connections,” Ledeboer said. “There were people on the planning group who knew Toni Atkins and had worked for her. I think they spoke for us.”
The emphasis on sidewalks continued after the study came out. Property owners are responsible for maintaining sidewalks. But Atkins used federal community development grants and money from her council budget to supplement the city’s cost-share program and make repairs cheaper. The city paid to fix some sidewalks with drainage problems nearby. Mini-governments, such as maintenance districts, financed other improvements.
In North Park, the section of Ray Street between the heavily trafficked University Avenue and North Park Way made the worst-sidewalks’ list. Now, new areas of sidewalk match the community’s historic concrete pattern. Benches were installed. The block continues to host a popular monthly arts walk.
Other factors helped improve the community’s sidewalks, too. Before the housing market crashed, North Park boomed with new condominiums and other developments.
“Every single one of the projects included a requirement to redo the sidewalk,” said René Vidales, a member of North Park’s planning group.
To be sure, many significant sidewalk issues remain in the neighborhoods, some of San Diego’s oldest. The sidewalk study prioritized routes that had the most pedestrians. Roads near commercial areas took precedence. On the recent neighborhood walking tour, residential streets in between the blocks called out in the study had more severe problems.
Though the sidewalk study had some lasting effect on the three neighborhoods it examined, it didn’t on the process at City Hall.
Council President Todd Gloria, Atkins’ successor, hadn’t seen the study until contacted by Voice of San Diego. Neither had Councilman Mark Kersey, who heads the new infrastructure committee.
The sidewalk study underscores the importance of identifying and prioritizing problems so that they can be fixed. The study helped get results for the neighborhoods it surveyed. But in many cases, studies haven’t been done. Those that have often address specific, rather than citywide, issues and tend to disappear when their champions leave.
The committee hopes to put an end to that by developing a long-range plan to build and maintain infrastructure within the next 18 months. Kersey wants sidewalks to be a part of that effort. Doing so won’t be cheap.
Hasan Yousef, a streets official, said evaluating the 5,000 miles of sidewalks across San Diego will cost more than the $558,000 the city paid to examine its roads two years ago. Street assessments can be done from a car.
“With the sidewalks, we’re most likely going to have to walk it,” Yousef said.
The city hasn’t released a cost estimate of its sidewalk survey yet. What happened in Los Angeles could serve as a warning.
Last year, that city was planning to evaluate its nearly 11,000 miles of sidewalks. Then officials revealed the price tag: $10 million — and it would take three years. Angelenos howled at the cost. The Los Angeles Times lampooned the idea. Los Angeles, a public works spokeswoman said this week, is still revising its plan to examine the city’s sidewalks.
Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663.
Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.
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