When Denver set out for the first time to take on its crumbling and shifting sidewalks in a sweeping way, city officials opted for a methodical approach that would tackle each neighborhood, one by one.
But 16 months later, after the completion of more than 1,100 inspections, the lone inspector dedicated to the job is still stuck in the program’s first neighborhood, just blocks from where he began in central Denver.
At this rate, a city councilman recently projected, smoothing out the walkways across all 78 of Denver’s official neighborhoods might take more than 150 years. That self-defeating time span is a far cry from city officials’ original rough estimate of a decade.
As pedestrian advocates and residents of other neighborhoods grow restless, a Denver transportation department spokesperson concedes that officials underestimated just how laborious the task would be. Yet in the Neighborhood Sidewalk Repair Program’s second year, city officials say they haven’t hired more inspectors or made plans for a more robust program.
City Councilman Paul Kashmann, a longtime proponent of the program, said he agrees that officials should “maintain the course for the coming year,” but added: “I’d like to see more inspectors. I’d like to see us do what we can to move it forward more quickly. As we have found … it’s a substantially heavier lift than we anticipated.”
The Denver Post’s review of the program found that it was set back by some unsurprising challenges, including wet and snowy weather and the need to avoid damaging nearby trees. But other factors made for even choppier waters, including technical hiccups, more broken sidewalks than anticipated, a lengthy process to arrange repairs and, most of all, insufficient city resources.
In most cases, it’s the property owners who are responsible for footing the bill for any work, even if it’s carried out by city crews or the city’s contractor. Most tabs have been in the hundreds of dollars, city data show — though for one in five, the cost has exceeded $1,000, in rare cases by a lot.
Not all property owners have been happy to comply, and in the initial neighborhood, a portion of Speer, many homeowners haven’t qualified for financial assistance or a delayed repayment option designed to soften the blow.
The city’s caution in revamping the program doesn’t sit well with Jeff Reed, a Capitol Hill resident who lives in a still-untouched part of the first region prioritized for inspections, out of 11 citywide.
“The city has one inspector. That’s it,” said Reed, who lives on Pennsylvania Street. “The program to get them fixed was announced with great fanfare, but not surprisingly, the mayor’s follow-through is weak at best.”
He also suggested council members were spending too much time on less important matters, referring to a recent approval: “Plastic bag fees are a much higher priority than something like sidewalk safety.”
Reed sees an obvious need for repair orders in his area, with recurring uneven sidewalks posing hazards to people on foot, especially in the dark or snow. He cited a glaring example where the concrete drops several inches, sharing a picture that’s been circulated among his neighbors.
The Denver auditor’s office has said it plans to evaluate the repair program in the coming year.
Program’s launch followed decades of neglect
Councilman Chris Hinds, who has represented central Denver since July, agreed that the pace of the program has been too slow. He made the recent 156-year projection for the program to reach all neighborhoods based on its attention so far to roughly half of one. He says he navigates uneven sidewalks nearly every day as a wheelchair user.
The council and Mayor Michael Hancock have made headway on the sidewalks issue in recent years, though not nearly as quickly as many residents and advocates want. More than $30 million was earmarked for sidewalks citywide in the city’s 2017 voter-approved bond package, but that’s intended mostly to fill gaps where walkways are missing.
When it comes to maintenance of existing pavement, the issue gets thorny: Denver city ordinance long has left the responsibility for repairing sidewalks to adjoining property owners.
That policy, as in many other cities, has resulted in decades of widespread neglect, especially without proactive enforcement by the city. For years, officials discussed potential city initiatives to tackle the issue. In August 2018, Denver Public Works — recently renamed the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure — kicked off the new sidewalk repair program.
But soon the well-intentioned — if underfunded — program collided with pushback from residents caught by surprise.
After the initial inspections, Laura Dean received one of the first repair notices, which cited uneven seams between the flagstone tiles in front of her house on South Grant Street and gave her a couple weeks to decide on repair options. Red X’s were painted on the offending stones.
She remembers that the notice was stuck on her door in mid-December 2018.
“What kind of bothered me was that they hit us right before Christmas and didn’t give us any warning that this was going to be happening,” Dean said.
Though the city offered to have its contractor replace the flagstones with red-hued concrete, she arranged an $850 repair by an outside contractor so she could keep the historic stones. Her neighbor, a widow who lives on a corner lot with sidewalks on two sides, was hit by $4,000 or so in repairs, Dean said.
Loan and assistance options for some homeowners
While owners of commercial and multifamily residential properties that receive a repair notice must arrange their own sidewalk work, single-family homeowners can choose the city’s contractor.
The city’s $4 million revolving loan fund offers an installment payment option for households based on income, with the qualification limit set at $94,499 per year for a single person and $134,849 for a family of four. Lower-income households can apply for the city to subsidize 25% to 100% of the repair or replacement costs, on a sliding scale.
But Dean said most in her neighborhood don’t qualify for either option and must absorb the hit all at once.
As of mid-December, the city said it had done 898 sidewalk inspections next to homes and 221 next to businesses, apartments and condos in the south part of the Speer neighborhood, in an area roughly bounded by Broadway, Downing Street, Speer Boulevard and Alameda Avenue.
More than 70% resulted in repair orders for the adjoining residential or commercial property owners — a higher rate than expected, especially for single-family homes. Fewer than half the repairs or replacements have been completed.
At times, tempers have flared. Nancy Kuhn, a spokesperson for the transportation department, declined to make program supervisors available for interviews since city staff members “have experienced both verbal and physical threats” during the program.
“That said, there have been community members who have thanked staff as well,” she added.
Trying to lower burden on residents
Sherri Way, president of the West Washington Park Neighborhood Association, which covers part of Speer, recounted the group’s lobbying of city officials to expand the payment assistance options and reduce the sting for corner-dwellers. Most requests were rejected, though the city agreed to extend the repayment term on its loan program from three to five years.
“We understand the need and we support (the program), but we want to balance the interests so it doesn’t unduly burden residents,” Way said.
City officials recently made one adjustment when they struck a new $1.3 million contract with Silva Construction to be the city’s designated repair contractor in the coming year. Up to 20% of its work will be allowed to happen outside of the program zone, in the rest of the city. That will mean property owners hit with sidewalk complaints by the public can take part in the program, potentially receiving assistance.
But a pedestrian advocacy group wants to see the city think bigger — and even more proactively.
- New sidewalk inspections start soon in central Denver — and it will cost property owners
- Denver will inspect sidewalks, order repairs — and offer payment help to homeowners. Here’s how it will work.
- New Denver focus on transportation heading to voters in November
WalkDenver points to other cities nationally and in the suburbs here, including Englewood and Westminster, that collect regular fees or assessments from property owners, with the money used to pay for critical sidewalk repairs.
“The fundamental problem is that negotiating with one property owner at a time is an extremely inefficient way to manage maintenance of the public right of way,” executive director Jill Locantore said. “Can you imagine if that’s how the city fixed potholes? Our streets would be in the same state of disrepair that our sidewalks currently are.”