SIDEWALKS: LOOKING FOR A FIX
The Oregon Trail went right down their street and over the nearby hills en route to western Oregon, say B Avenue residents and local historians.
Gerda Brownton is one of those residents. She has lived on the street since 1950. She likes to walk. This year, at age 83, she marched over the hills and through private lands to Hilgard, eight miles from her home.
"I have to keep walking. We have a group that walks a lot. But we don't walk on the sidewalks," she said from the dining room of her 2,700-square-foot home on 70 acres with a spectacular view of Mount Emily.
The sidewalks are a contentious issue for her and some of her neighbors, several of whom are, like her, widows. Of concern to many is how to pay for repairs or replacement ordered by the city.
Not too long ago, city workers came around and put chalk marks in the form of arrows on sections of the sidewalk along the long frontage of her property. The arrows pointed to sections where the sidewalks had to be repaired or replaced.
"We got a letter from the city. It was so strange for them to send a letter saying we had 90 days to replace parts of the sidewalk. They gave me an estimate of $3,000 and said we could pay for it at 12 percent interest.
"It costs so much for me because I have a big (circular) driveway which crosses the sidewalk twice. The concrete has to be 6 inches thick there," Brownton said. "It's 6 inches thick in other places."
Brownton and some of her neighbors went to the city to complain about the timeline, and now the deadline is "relaxed," or not imposed, said Assistant Public Works Director Norm Paullus.
"We revisited the letter and have revamped it. We no longer have a deadline except in extreme cases where the sidewalk presents a hazard," Paullus said.
Incidentally, the city crews said they weren't concerned about the long strip of grass in front of Brownton's house where a sidewalk used to be until she and her late husband, Judge Wesley F. Brownton, had the walk dug out 30 years ago because it was buckling from the roots of a poplar tree they planted years before. They cut down that tree. Wes Brownton died Jan. 10, 2001, at age 92.
"It didn't make sense not to put in sidewalks where the grass is growing now, but the city crews said they weren't worried about that," she said.
"There is no program to mandate that sidewalks be installed where they don't exist," Paullus said.
In fact, he said, a person can construct a home on a single lot and is not required to put in a sidewalk.
On the other hand, as of two years ago, a subdivision developer is now required to build sidewalks on both sides of new streets.
"Even without that strip of grass, there is quite a bit of sidewalk, and I expect people on this street will get their broken sidewalks replaced this summer," said Brownton. "Several neighbors have gone together and gotten an estimate which is cheaper than the city's," Brownton said. For her, it will be $2,000.
One point of contention among neighbors is their statements that the city has never done much in the way of maintenance with the street.
ROAD MAINTENANCE ISSUE
"The city has never done much with the road. They paved the gravel road 40 or 50 years ago, but we paid for it. Then they dug it up later to put in a high-powered sewer line and never really resurfaced it again," Brownton said.
Neighbor Felipe Veloz agreed.
"The sidewalks get the least use, but nothing has been done to the roadway in the 27 years I have lived here," he said.
Paullus admitted "there are two issues on B Avenue.
"The first is that we have to repair the sidewalks. The second question residents have is why hasn't the street been maintained," he said.
The street hasn't been fixed, Paullus said, because the street maintenance fund is $80,000 in the hole now.
Some people have asked the city if it should force widows with only Social Security income or other limited income to replace a sidewalk when just patching a few cracks in it would suffice.
Yes, is the city's answer.
Another controversy has developed where commercial and residential properties exist on the same street. Should the owner of residential property across the street from two motels be made to go into debt mainly for the benefit of motel users?
Recently the city council approved establishment of a Local Improvement District on 21st Street for curbs, gutters and sidewalks for use mainly by motel visitors. The street runs north off Cove Avenue near Interstate 84.
The project, covering 775 lineal feet, will cost close to $127,000, said Paullus.
The council approved awarding a contract of $104,927 to Rogers Asphalt for the project. There are other charges for engineering and for contingency, Paullus said.
Motels in the area will pay a large share of the cost, he said.
Preliminary assessments to the Sandman Hotel will be $32,618, the Best Western will pay $54,477 and the Tamarack Court Apartments will pay $25,388.
The total for the motels is $87,095 or 69 percent of the cost. The Sandman and Best Western are owned by former La Grande resident Bakulesh "Buggsi" Patel, who now operates out of Lake Oswego.
"The motels don't feel they should pay the entire cost," Paullus said.
The city council has agreed, stating that owners of the three residences will be getting improvements to 26 percent of the street frontage for only 11 percent of the cost.
"It will improve the property values," councilor Art Rhodes said of the improvements planned at the motels.
Meetings were held among the property owners and the city, and the city council discussed the project twice, approving it June 5.
Because of the projected cost to property owners, the project was scaled back after originally including 15 property owners. It was modified to include only the one-block section from East Q Avenue to East R Avenue. It now affects only the owners of eight properties.
Don and Judy Stevens, the owners of two lots with a total of three rental residences, objected to the assessment, saying there is not a traffic safety hazard for either parked or traveling vehicles. Motel managers cited safety as one reason they wanted to see curbs and gutters along the block.
Paullus said the city staff looked for an equitable method of assessing the property owners and said the best one was the method that distributed the cost based on the number of living units. In counting the motels, he said he based their use on 100 percent occupancy.
The Stevenses' three units will be assessed at a rate of $4,831 each, which is a lesser amount than previous LIDs for a single-family residence, Paullus said. Their total LID payment will be $14,493, plus interest.
From the freeway, the best way to access the motels is to turn off Island Avenue onto Albany Street, go a block and turn onto East R Street, which leads to the motels.
MANY REPAIRS NEEDED
No doubt many of the sidewalks of La Grande are in disrepair Â— to put it mildly. Pick almost any part of town and you'll find sidewalks that need fixing or replacing, Paullus said.
"We've developed a sidewalk maintenance program to inspect all the sidewalks in the city over a 10-year period," he said.
Because of heavy use, the downtown area will be inspected twice during that time, he said.
To facilitate the program, he has divided the city into nine segments. A lot of work is now going on in the southwest part of town.
"A lot of the work Â— 90 percent Â— is what we call spot replacement,'' Paullus said. That's where a few feet of sidewalk has deteriorated, suffered sinking or upheaval due to tree roots or other factors, causing lips or dropoffs that can trip walkers.
He does not have an estimate of the total lineal feet that needs replacing.
Most problems can be fixed over time, but some need immediate attention, he said.
"Sometimes there is no way to avoid a hazard without getting hurt. We put those on a higher priority," Paullus said.
"If we find a hazard that we think will present a liability to the landowner Â— where someone could get hurt Â— we put the owner on notice that the hazard could be dangerous and we show them the options they have."
The solution to a hazard is not necessarily removal and replacement of the sidewalk, he said. Sometimes a small concrete ramp can patch the hazard and make an effort to smooth out the sidewalk enough to eliminate any threat of liability.
MORE COSTLY WITH CITY
Residents can get the city to do the work or hire a local contractor.
"It costs about $25 a running foot to replace a sidewalk and $33 to $34 a running foot where the driveway is. It has to be 6 inches thick at the driveway," Paullus said. "A small repair job should cost $600 to $700," he said.
In the southwest part of town where inspectors are now marking sidewalks for repair or replacement and where contractors are busy throughout the area, the main problem, Paullus said, is the fact that there has not been much upkeep on sidewalks.
"On B Avenue, for example, which is the oldest section of town, it was one of the first to have sidewalks. If that section had been given spot maintenance as needed, it would not be so costly today to repair it now."
Mark and Sallie Aldape live on B Avenue and agree the work should be done, but Sallie Aldape is not sure the sidewalk should be replaced.
"It was poured in 10-foot sections and the lips don't match. There is a drop-off of between a half-inch and two inches. Someone could trip and this is a liability we want to avoid. But there is probably a cheaper way to fix the problem other than replacing the sidewalk. It costs more to do the replacement because you have to rip up the existing sidewalk," she said.
Aldape sees a lot of joggers as well as walkers on the street, but they are in the street, not on the sidewalk, which has various missing segments. The street length of B Avenue is about equivalent to 10 city blocks.
Paullus said that if a person is not in the section of town being worked on this year, he or she still can call the city for a free estimate for any sidewalks needed and probably can get the work done this year. Most people hire a contractor rather than use city crews, which is more expensive, he said. There are several private contractors keeping busy now, he said.
If a person can't afford to pay for the repairs or replacement right away, there are options to cover the costs, Paullus said.
Forming a voluntary local improvement district, called an LID, to pay for the work over a 10-year period is a logical way to go, Paullus said. This involves borrowing the money from a bank at the bank's usual rate or paying the city 12 percent interest over the same period of time.
In an LID Â— which can be established if more than half the residents of a specific area, such as a block in a neighborhood, approve of the formation Â— the city will do the replacement or a property owner can contract to have it done (cheaper) to city specifications.
This process hits people on fixed incomes, such as widows, pretty hard in the pocketbook, residents have complained. The city doesn't want to compete with banks, so anyone who can't get a bank loan or pay cash has to finance the repairs over a long period of time through the LID. The 12 percent interest is set by city ordinance.
HELP FOR SENIOR CITIZENS
Those seniors who can meet income qualifying standards can get a deferred payment plan whereby the state puts a lien on the property and pays for the work. The loan is paid off when the property is sold.
The area around Fourth Street and B Avenue certainly is not a heavily traveled area, either by car of by pedestrians, and forcing an LID on people is not always pleasant experience for the city but is the way it will go to get work done in some cases, Paullus said.
Other cities have similar ordinances that require adjacent residents to pay for replacing or repairing sidewalks. Portland does not offer financing assistance for such work, but the resident "can either do the work themselves or hire a contractor; after the work, the city's maintenance staff inspects the new sidewalk," said Linda Birth of Portland's transportation bureau. Portland will form LIDs for street improvement projects and this could include sidewalks, Birth said.
Story and photos
by Ray Linker of The Observer