More cities are recognizing that residents want walkable neighborhoods. But making way for sidewalks can be a complicated endeavor.
For proof of the fractured history of sidewalks in suburbia, look no further than Katherine McManus’ block of Zarthan Avenue in St. Louis Park.
On a street where children and parishioners walk to the school and church at the end of the block, the sidewalk simply stops at her property line and starts up again three homes down the street. Pedestrians veer into the sometimes-busy street to avoid walking on the grass.
“Walking dogs or having kids in the street seems ridiculously dangerous,” McManus said.
Once, cities had sidewalks and suburbs had lawns. Not anymore. Next week, the St. Louis Park City Council is expected to approve a 10-year plan to put a sidewalk within a quarter mile of every resident (fixing the Zarthan gap in 2016). Hopkins and Edina have programs to add sidewalks. This summer, Hennepin County is expected to approve a pedestrian plan that will make the county a more active partner in planning and helping to pay for sidewalks.
The sidewalk movement is linked to a drive to make communities more walkable and is usually paired with efforts to add bikeways. John Archer, a University of Minnesota professor who is an expert on suburbs, said that suburbs are reinventing themselves in response to residents who want to “walk to the fitness center, the coffee shop and the grocery store.
“This is a lifestyle asset, and cities are hip to that,” he said. “What St. Louis Park and Edina are doing is saying, we really have to keep up. We have to keep attracting people who want to move here, and make this an attractive place, because people who are moving in don’t have the same affections that the old people did.
“Suburbs are evolving with the times. The trick here is not that these places are no longer suburbs. They are not the suburbs they were when people moved there 40 years ago.”
St. Louis Park’s program to link residents to destinations through a one-quarter mile sidewalk grid is based on feedback from a citizen committee. Sean Walther, a senior planner for the city, said the city wants to connect people to transit stops, schools and major commercial centers.
“Not everyone is driving, or wants to drive, so we want to provide opportunity and choice for that,” he said.
Walther said the gaps in St. Louis Park’s sidewalks are the result of changing policies and the fact that most sidewalks were added by development when homes were built.
The city has 111 miles of sidewalk; the plan would add about 10.5 miles more. The estimated cost of building sidewalks as well as trails over a decade is $17 million to $24 million, which would be paid for through bonding.
Where the sidewalks end
Edina, which traditionally asks property owners to pay for street improvements, has set up a sidewalk construction fund financed with franchise fees, thus avoiding billing individual residents for new sidewalks. The fund is expected to collect $1.1 million to $1.2 million each year. The city also is hiring a transportation planner whose duties will include coordinating sidewalk projects.
In Hopkins, which recently approved a pedestrian and bike plan, the city historically had many sidewalks. But from the 1950s to the 1980s, residents were responsible for maintaining them. City Engineer John Bradford said that when homeowners got letters from the city asking them to repair the panels, some people removed parts or all of the sidewalk in front of their homes.
“Seventy-five percent of it is there, but we have the dead-end legs,” he said. “We are try to fill the gaps now.”
Hopkins officials also want to create sidewalk network that connects to business areas, schools and parks.
“Sidewalks are difficult projects,” Bradford said. “Everybody loves the sidewalk — on the other side of the street. That makes for contentious projects.”
Wayne Houle, city engineer in Edina, remembers his first sidewalk project more than a decade ago as “a huge fight.” Attitudes are changing, he said, but there’s often diverse views on a street when a sidewalk is proposed.
“The majority of the city was developed post-World War II, when car was king,” he said. “Trying to retrofit for sidewalks is difficult to do in the existing right of way. You have the room, but you’re disturbing a lot of infrastructure.”
Often people don’t want to shovel a sidewalk. But many residents also forget that the city usually owns a 10- or 15-foot strip of the front yard next to the street. Over the years, trees, gardens and other landscaping crowd that right of way, and people don’t want them removed.
When St. Louis Park asked residents who could be affected by the pedestrian plan what they thought, one replied, “We have lived here for 50 years and have never needed a sidewalk. The lawn stretching to the street is a lovely sight.”
Wrote another, “I don’t want my taxes to go up to pay for a completely unnecessary lark, dreamed up by a bunch of local politicians trying to figure out a way to spend money. ... Save the trees, dump the concrete somewhere else, maybe your neighborhood.”
St. Louis Park ended up paring its sidewalk priority list by about 20 percent because of objections from residents or physical barriers, according to City Engineer Scott Brink.
Sidewalks as meeting places
But then there are residents like Katherine McManus and Rita DeBrobander, neighbors on Zarthan Avenue, who are campaigning for a complete sidewalk on their street to be completed sooner than 2016. Sidewalks were built when the older homes on the block were built, but their newer homes never got a walkway.
DeBrobander worries about the safety of children who detour into the street while walking to the parochial school down the block. In the winter, she said, the interrupted sidewalk means everyone simply walks in the street.
“I walk in the street and I feel very safe, but I’m quite conscious of it,” she said. “When the sidewalks are there, I use them.”
McManus, whose family moved to Zarthan a couple of years ago from another St. Louis Park house just a few blocks away, cites not only safety concerns but social reasons for a complete sidewalk.
“To me, this is a first inner-ring neighborhood of the city, and the sidewalk allows you to meet neighbors and people going by,” she said. “It helps neighbors meet neighbors.”
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380