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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Mayor On Sidewalks, Dog Parks, and Roundabouts

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn at the Town Hall on November 27th, 2012

Tuesday night, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn addressed resident’s questions at a Town Hall conducted at the Northgate Community Center. Moderated by friend-of-the-blog Philip Shack of Cedar Park (who was just elected chair of the City Neighborhood Council), McGinn took questions for 90 minutes on a series of issues. Numbers were distributed to those wanting to pose a question which were limited to one minute of speaking time (one person walked out in protest).

Regarding Northgate, he said, “Northgate has been changing and will change more,” particularly with the coming of Light Rail. The work around 5th Avenue NE and Northgate Way is nearly completed (though one person complained the new sidewalks were too steep), and a proposal to extend the hours for youth services at the community center did not pass the city council this year.

He stated the obvious about the redevelopment of the Bill Pierre Properties in Lake City saying, “It has some real opportunities,” and having met with two of the Pierres, was encouraged that a business wanted to do something positive for the neighborhood rather than just make the biggest buck by selling out.

On sidewalks (which as we all know are extremely expensive), he noted that his own neighborhood around NE 87th in Greenwood was also sidewalk-free and that, “It’s way over due” but “We need more resources to focus on it.” Noting, “I really think small projects matter,” he concluded with, “We have to find a better way to finance them than we have now.” (Philip Shack pointed out that Neighborhood Street Fund is currently accepting applications for projects in the $100,000-$750,000 range with a deadline of December 17th, 2012 if neighborhood groups wanted to organize for a desired project.)

There was a surprising constituency for roundabouts in Seattle (note, these are the large European ones beginning to be used on the Olympic Penninsula for some intersections, NOT traffic circles used on residential streets to slow traffic). He said the city had an interest in experimenting with them (“There are advocates in the Department [of Transportation],” but would need appropriate space in order to work as they are larger than the average intersection.

And more than a few people among the two dozen or so attendees wanted more off-leash areas for dogs. Apparently the 98115 zip code has more dogs in it than any other part of Seattle and no off-leash area.  Even the new giant park going in on top of the Roosevelt reservoir does not include one (resistance from the Parks Department was alleged by a member of the Maple Leaf Community Council). Giving a non-committal “I hear you,” the Mayor encouraged the community to keep telling officials that this is a priority for them if they want them.

Finally, on the topic of drones being deployed, McGinn described them merely like “a radio-controlled helicopter that will fly for 10-15 minutes” and would only be used when emergency responders needed an eye in the sky, for example during a siege situation. But he affirmed, “We will not use them until a proposal has passed the city council” to regulate their use.


The Revived Victory Heights Community Council Is Go

The first meeting in several years of the revived Victory Heights Community Council was held Wednesday night, not in Victory Heights itself but the Seattle Mennonite Church in Lake City (more on that in a bit).  A dozen people including speakers showed up and heard Susan Causin, our representative on the North District Council, gave an introductory speech in lieu of Shammara Estrada who was home with her new baby (congrats!).

Brad Cummings then gave a short presentation (see photo) about the history of the Victory Heights Community Council. In its heyday (over a decade ago), meetings at the Community Center in Victory Heights Park would attract a number of active dues-paying members as well as city councilmen and other VIP speakers. Community events included egg hunts in the park for kids. Eventually fewer and fewer people attended meetings as people’s lives got busier but also Victory Heights’ unique and rather stable situation as a single-family housing neighborhood without any businesses that doesn’t really see a lot of change or upheaval to motivate folks.  Brad has continued to oversee the bank account for the council even though he hasn’t written a check in over nine years. He also revealed the existence of three sandwich boards he had stored for alerting the community about upcoming activities (watch for these on display in coming months!).

I was then asked to say a few words about the blog and social media. One burning question was what was the blog’s purpose versus that of Next Door Neighbor. I explained that Next Door is a closed-loop social media where people post items or news about themselves that only get distributed to other members. While it is immediate (particularly when suspicious activity is occurring), I see the blog as more Big Picture since it’s not really about things happening directly to me but what’s going on in the neighborhood at large. Maybe folks see that as all the same thing, feel free to choose for yourself.

In lieu of Terrie Johnston, the Seattle Police Department’s Crime Prevention Coordinator who was home sick in bed, Phillip Duggan, the co-chair of the North District Council (and who runs the Pinehurst blog) stepped in to talk briefly about the work that Terrie does including free home and business security inspections.  If you are interested you can contact her at the North Precinct, 206-684-7711.

Janet Arkills from the Lake City Neighborhood Alliance distributed fliers with community group contact information as well as a brief summary of the Bill Pierre property situation in Lake City. She was very well-informed and a great resource (did you know putting in a new sidewalk in Seattle costs $1 million per mile?) Which is why we’ll never see any in Victory Heights in our lifetimes…

Eileen Canola then talked briefly about how the city awards grants for improvements such as traffic circles. There has been a movement to get one put in 23rd Ave NE, it just takes persistence to make it happen (Brad illustrated this point by talking about construction projects like at 5th Ave NE and Northgate Way which were being planned as far back as the 1990s but only now got funded and built).

Everyone seemed keen to have further meetings, and it was decided to hold the next Victory Heights Community Council meeting at 7 PM on Thursday, November 29th tentatively at the Community Center in Victory Heights Park.  Susan had worked tirelessly to secure that location for Wednesday’s meeting but neither the Parks Department nor North Seattle Community College was able to provide assistance beforehand. But earlier this week I was contacted by someone at the Cooperative Daycare at the community center who has the necessary authority to let us use the building in future. Thank you, Kara, for your help!

Watch for sandwich boards alongside the streets announcing future events (and plugging this blog).  If you have a “prime” location (for example, on NE 107th, 19th Ave NE, 23rd Ave NE or NE 100th) and would like to volunteer a few feet of your lawn by the side of the road for us to display a sign, please drop us a line. Thanks!

 [This article was edited on October 28th to change the date of the next meeting.]