The Case Against Sidewalks

sidewalkA very common complaint about neighborhoods in Seattle north of NE 85th Street is the lack of sidewalks on many residential streets. This is due to the fact most were built before these areas were annexed to the city in the late 1940s when unincorporated county streets did not require sidewalks. So everyone loves sidewalks, right? Not necessarily. A discussion on a mailing list last year revealed that not everyone is on board with sidewalks everywhere.
Vici wrote, “I like Victory Heights just the way it is.  I’m sure you’ve seen the sidewalks north of here.  Check out how much less parking space is available.” Stuart and Jocelyne added, “We totally agree, we love the ‘country’ feel of our neighborhood and don’t want to lose some front yard and our parking strip to sidewalks.” Aaron said, “Yeah, we don’t need sidewalks.  But sure would be nice to have curb & gutter (not a joke). Though I think that takes an act of congress or something monumental. Suppose it would be easier and quicker to  move into a different neighborhood that had that already.” Tom noted, “I agree. Many streets become increasingly narrow towards their ends and have little room for sidewalk without removing parking & even yards. Ever pass through 23rd Ave NE, north of Northgate Way and find folks still walking down the street in spite of the sidewalks that have been created and now reduce the street to single lane through out most of this street?”
In any case, sidewalks are not imminently coming to Victory Heights or any other neighborhood soon because of the extreme expense to the city. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) says the cost of constructing a block of sidewalk in the city of Seattle averages $181,000 per block (a range between $85,000 and up to $300,000 depending on the amount of work required to construct it). Short of a monumental tax hike to pay for that, the city is in no rush to build sidewalks on every residential street given current budget shortfalls.
But even if a magical sidewalk fairy (or rich billionaire) could fund the construction, what are some of the liabilities to sidewalking the entire north end of city? Water runoff during rain would be a big factor. Love them or hate them, the current grass culvert system along most of our streets absorbs a tremendous of water, meaning it never makes it to treatment plants or dumped into our creeks and lakes. Replacing these with storm-drained sidewalks would mean ALL the rain would suddenly be streaming into the storm system, flowing into Thornton Creek, or overwhelming water treatment plants.
The city in fact, anticipating this problem, has instituted a stormwater code that basically says if you construct a new sidewalk in front of your home you are required to deal with the increased runoff from that surface area. The range of solutions includes using pervious pavement, constructing an infiltrating raingarden, etc. With a large project, like a new residential building or paving/covering more than 5000 square feet of surface, the code requires a formal detention system. You can see this in practice, though, when a new building goes up and there’s a detention pond or similar structure in a common area to deal with the increased storm water. For some buildings, it involves constructing a temporary holding tank underground, which holds the water until the stormdrain system can handle the increased flow.
Developers include the costs of all this when designing new buildings. For communities like Victory Heights, such a retention system in an existing neighborhood seems rather impractical if sidewalks were to be put in.
So sidewalk haters, rejoice! Due to factors like the high cost, and stormwater concerns, don’t expect to see any new sidewalks in Victory Heights for some time.
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