This week, I am introducing a resolution for a resident-request driven sidewalk gap filling program. It is a relatively small budget amendment that I am proposing as a pilot program. Residents could petition the city about a sidewalk gap their neighborhood needs filled, the City would measure local neighborhood interest, and if enough local residents expressed support then the assessment to the property owner(s) would be subsidized by 50%. My resolution is on the Nov 18, 2019 Council agenda as DC-2 (19-2176)
My goals for this program are two-fold: 1) formalize the process for taking resident requests for filling sidewalk gaps and 2) reduce potential resistance from assessed property owners in cases where local neighborhoods have expressed a community need.
In the last year, Council considered proposals to fill two sidewalk gaps in Ward 1, both of which prompted written protest from the residents subject to assessment for cost. When property owners challenge assessments like these, Council approval then requires a super-majority: eight votes. Both of the contested sidewalk gap assessments failed. One of these proposed sidewalks failed due to written protest from a single resident, even though seven Council members voted in favor of it.
Under our current system, a new sidewalk is deemed to be a property improvement, an investment that adds to the value of a private property. I.e. By assessment, the property owner assumes the cost of the new sidewalk and, presumably, enjoys the benefit. Conversely, some argue that connectivity via sidewalks is clearly a “community benefit,” that individual property owners should not be asked to pay for any of them. City staff tell me that the cost of filling every sidewalk gap — approximately 150 miles of sidewalk — is so high that if the City assumed the whole of that expense, we would have to pass an additional millage to pay for it.
Legally, the city can recognize a “community benefit” to sidewalks and subsidize some (or all) of the cost of construction, but we have no process for calculating that “community benefit” except on a case-by-case basis, at the discretion of Council. I do not believe that funding discretion like that, at the Council table, would be a good process; it would be too vulnerable to political influence or whim.
There are so many sidewalk gaps in Ann Arbor that staff prioritizes them primarily by characteristics that can be sorted automatically (e,g. location and proximity that can be mapped and ranked by a set of metrics). I’m told that the city also receives about a dozen requests a year from residents re: specific sidewalk gaps. Resident requests are supposed to help the city prioritize the filling of sidewalk gaps, but many sidewalk gap projects are scheduled simply because the city happens to be doing other work in the area.
Given the many miles of sidewalk gaps that exist in Ann Arbor and the very small number that we actually address year to year, there is room to debate the question: where are sidewalks most helpful, most needed? In theory, sidewalks connect our neighborhoods for use by all pedestrians but in practice, some sidewalks are more likely to be used than others. E,g. The city already acknowledges at least one residential neighborhood in Ward 2 where residents walk on low-traffic streets and have no interest in sidewalks.
During heated debate about relative need for new sidewalks in Ward 1, residents of Ward 4 told me about a desperately needed sidewalk on Stimson. Ward 4 residents asked me: why has it taken so long for the city to prioritize our sidewalk on Stimson, where “goat paths” show regular pedestrian traffic?
In the last two months, I have been talking to city staff about how to meet the needs of neighborhoods who want and need sidewalks. Before I mentioned it, staff had already been working to improve their methods of prioritization — everyone at City Hall would rather invest time and effort on projects that are popular and satisfy residents.
My resolution is written to find sidewalk gap filling projects that have significant local support. Sidewalk gaps can be difficult to fill when individual property owners balk at assessment costs and anticipated maintenance costs. Council has a role to play in promoting the most-needed sidewalk gap projects because we can offer subsidies that make them less burdensome to property owners.
I am pleased to see Stimson included among the items on our 11/18/19 agenda, but Stimson is only one case; we have needs city-wide. I am hopeful about my resolution prompting discussion about how we can work together to address those city-wide needs. My proposal is one idea, and I welcome suggestions/amendments about how to make it better. I believe that residents can help us identify the most needed sidewalks, our city staff can create an objective process to measure “community benefit,” and Council can direct city resources toward those projects that are most needed and have the most local support.