Jenkintown must pursue a pedestrian-first policy

This essay was originally written for the StrongTowns.org blog and was published last week. If you agree, please share this with friends and neighbors, especially if you live in Jenkintown.

Jenkintown, Pennsylvania actively promotes itself as a walkable community. Indeed, this borough that barely encompasses a square mile has sidewalks lining both sides of all of its streets. We moved here for that reason among others, but at that time, we didn’t know (and weren’t told) that Pennsylvania has what I believed a peculiar practice of making property owners directly responsible for all the physical maintenance and repair of its abutting sidewalks and curbs. I say peculiar because as a former resident of Massachusetts, we understood and never questioned that the municipality maintained all of the public right-of-way, including its sidewalks.

Last year, when Jenkintown embarked on an extensive paving program, it simultaneously conducted a mass-inspection of the sidewalks and curbs. Suddenly, the borough became of beehive of concrete contractor activity as homeowners scrambled to find someone to do the work before the deadlines.

It didn’t take long before the flaws in this system became wrenchingly evident. Contractors had a pricing advantage in that homeowners had deadlines, and their estimates reflected this. In our case, we had to replace four blocks of sidewalks and 40 feet of curb. We had initial estimates ranging from $3000 to $5000. Failure to comply with the borough meant fines of $185 per day or jail. Also, the borough makes no provision for hardship. Pay up, or go to jail, and likely have your house seized.

However, as someone coming from a state where public works departments do this work, we knew that our unit costs far exceeded that of a wholesale approach. These ordinances result in a haphazard patchwork of sidewalk styles, conditions, and qualities. Where municipalities assume responsibility for the entire public right-of-way, they replace crumbling sidewalks whole neighborhood blocks at a time, resulting in a unified, consistent look that lasts longer and costs far less.

Our own borough informed us that the PennDOT acceptable unit costs for removal and replacement of sidewalks and curbs were $90 per square yard and $35 per linear foot respectively. One contractor wanted to charge us more than $100 per linear foot for our curb job. In other words, we pay for steak but get McNuggets.

Also keep in mind that here in Pennsylvania, municipalities accept the use of concrete curbing. In Massachusetts, they typically use granite which can cost the same or less than our concrete curbs. And granite effectively lasts forever.

We have made the argument to the borough that a wholesale approach spread out over a twenty-to-thirty year period typical for a well-built sidewalk would add less than 3% to the current budget — assuming that all else stays the same. Some fear the potential tax hike that this might bring, but a budget is primarily a statement of priorities. Our borough has already borrowed $2.4 million to build a 66-space parking lot on land they seized, evicting an operating business. The debt service on this lot amounts to nearly $100,000 per year, while the borough’s entire parking fund runs an annual deficit.

To all this, I ask, what brings a walkable town greater value for its taxpayers? More beautiful, better-built streetscapes or a money-losing parking lot that effectively subsidizes the downtown business? If building a parking lot brought such great value, then why doesn’t the business community do it themselves?

Policies that place this burden upon homeowners do nothing to promote the further spread of walkable communities, especially in older suburbs like ours where the sidewalks have reached the end of their effective lifespans. We live in one of the newer sections of town, built in the late 1930s, and a walk around conspicuously shows the lack of real priority this walkable community places on its pedestrians. The borough budget covers the full freight of the asphalt between the curbs, making Jenkintown more accurately described as drivable and park-able.

In my research on this topic, I’ve found next to nothing written in support of a better, more wholesale approach. Indeed, Los Angeles has begun to backpedal on a policy established in the 1970s that took over sidewalk repair from its homeowners, many of whom lived in distressed neighborhoods. Where then might L.A. spend these tax dollars instead? I can’t say for sure, but I do know that the NFL has recently awarded the city a franchise contingent upon significant public contribution. No wonder nobody walks in L.A.

We as advocates for stronger towns and a healthier pedestrian lifestyle must address this reality and soon. In my research, I’ve found no rhyme or reason to the national distribution of sidewalk policies. Five of six New England states place the responsibility with their DPWs. Pennsylvania towns place it on property owners. Portland, Oregon requires homeowners to fix, while Portland, Maine does it themselves. Red state city Knoxville gives it to DPW while blue state Minneapolis puts the burden on homeowners.

People and businesses seeking to invest in a walkable community should expect the municipal embrace of public goods as public responsibilities. The budgets of these communities should necessarily reflect that policy and place a high priority on the quality of its pedestrian experience. We as advocates for that experience must press this point with far more force than we have in the past.

1 comments

  1. Thank you for this article. I am a City of Philadelphia, current resident of Olney Section, where I grew up. I remember when my family first moved into Olney — we were moving from the Feltonville Section right below the Roosevelt Blvd. It was 1960. Not too long after we had settled into our home on the 6000 Block of Third Street, I remember that the back driveway between our street and American was being repaved. I believe the City decided to do it. I remember my Father being upset because it was going to cost a considerable amount. Some of our blocks, which were attached to the back drive were “X’d” out and needed to be replaced.
    The back drive was a common drive and, if memory serves me correct, maybe even garbage or trash trucks still used it although I am not sure. Anyway, all were assessed a certain amount for the common drive and had to pay. (Our “X’d” out blocks cost us additional funds. I was just starting high school at the time and could not tell you the cost.)
    I also remember, later on, living in other parts of North Philadelphia. I believe that there were City Programs through the Model Cities Program that allowed blocks in those sections to petition for the street to have their curbs and/or sidewalks repaired for “free”, if at least 50% of the block consisted of residences where the real estate taxes were current and paid.
    As I am now older, the sidewalks are much more travelled by me that at any time since my walking to high school and church. In Olney many section of sidewalk are in poor condition, with more than cracks — pieces missing underfoot or even buckled! Someone in a wheelchair would have a smoother ride in the street.
    In addition to that, although I am not living far from my original homestead in Olney, the driveway behind my present location is crumbling! This is very normal now with many of the common driveways in need of repair. I talked with the neighbor about it — but with the depth of the concrete required by law and the cost would be astronomical — no homeowner wants to complain or have it fixed.
    As far as I can remember – from the story I relate, I was always taught that the sidewalks and the back driveways were the homeowners’ responsibility. To see who is the “actual responsible owner” of the sidewalk area in question, one would have to check survey maps and see if the area in question is part of the real estate tax ratables.

Leave a Reply