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Thread: Downtown streetscape projects

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Budgie's avatar
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    Downtown streetscape projects

    We have been working on a downtown streetscape design and are coming close to having the City Commission taking action on adoption of the plan. I am finding myself a philosophical odds with other city staff and the city Commission in regards to the role the downtown property owners should play in funding the project. They content that the sidewalk is owned by the property owner and that they are responsible for "maintenance", which means that they should replace it when it is a deteriorated. I don't think that "maintenance" and "replacement" is the same, but they do.

    How can sidewalks be privately owned when they are in the public ROW. They exhibit none of the legal characteristics of private property. The adjancent property owner can not keep people from using it. They can not sell the sidewalk to somone else. they can not charge for the use of the sidewalk. They can not destroy the sidewalk. Their property legal description does not include the sidewalk. How can sidewalks in ROW be private property?

    Anyway, here's my question. Have downtown property owners been required to fund downtown streetscape improvements in your town... or has the City been the only source of local funding?
    "And all this terrible change had come about because he had ceased to believe himself and had taken to believing others. " - Leo Tolstoy

  2. #2
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    In my experience, owners have footed a portion of the bill as part of a business improvement district or special assessment district. And the owners have to buy in or it does not happen.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Our city code places maintenance responsibility on the abutting property owner, including replacement if found by the city engineer to have deteriorated. Does code speak to maintenance responsibility?

    I don't see how sidewalks can be privately owned when in ROW. Can the downtown property owners place obstacles in the sidewalk (outdoor sales, outdoor eating, etc.) without a permit by the governing agency?

    Our downtown has a development authority that helps enable downtown streetscape enhancements. I think that's the key, enhancements vs. just having sidewalk in place. If an abutting property does not have sidewalk or deteriorated sidewalk, I would hope you would have code to require the property owner to be responsible for it because it doesn't exist or is not in good condition. Perhaps the City has to upfront the cost initially but then file a repay from that property (code permitting).

    If the sidewalk exists and is in good condition but the plan is for enhancement with pavers, wider widths, etc. I'm not sure you can pin that on an abutting property owner, especially if found that abutting property had provided the existing sidewalk.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Ditto the comments of others. They are public property. Maintenance and replacement are often put back upon the abutter. An assessment district is one way to level the burden, but all that does is spread the pain evenly over time, rather than a once every 20-30 year hit.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    From what I know, its very common for the sidewalk maintenance and repair to be the responsibility of the adjacent landowner (for residential and commercial). Its not that way in every city, but its certainly not unusual. Whether it "makes sense" is not so much the issue as the fact that it is common practice.

    I think the BID may be the best approach for a few reasons. It allows the businesses to collaborate and invest their monies in improvements that THEY decide are directly related to making the area a better shopping destination. Its in their best interests to do so collectively. It helps them coordinate streetscape improvements that tie-in with the entire district instead of patchwork improvements in front of each retail space.

    All that being said, a "helpful" city will also partner with the BID on certain projects so that it feels like a real partnership. Maybe the city funds installation of bike racks, or banners, or pedestrian crossings, or opens funding streams to help with other elements that improve the area (and which the City cares about because it means more tax revenue) - things like grants for facade improvements, meeting space for BID meetings, whatever.

    It really should be a partnership with all parties - business owners and the city - contributing something to the area's success. Buy-in is important to success.
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  6. #6
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    All very good answers. How does the city deal with sidewalk replacement in other parts of the community? Then why would downtown be different from the highway commercial strip or a residential neighborhood?

    I agree with other postings that if the abutting property does pay, they should be paying only the cost of replacing a basic concrete sidewalk. If the city is adding in street furnishings, decorative lighting, brick pavers, and other "extras", then it should pay, or at least set up a special taxing district rather than assess owners through the conventional process.

    For what its worth, In my opinion, while fancy streetscapes can make an area look a little better, they really have a minimal impact on the profitability of the businesses there.
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  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    "From what I know, its very common for the sidewalk maintenance and repair to be the responsibility of the adjacent landowner (for residential and commercial). Its not that way in every city, but its certainly not unusual. Whether it "makes sense" is not so much the issue as the fact that it is common practice."


    This is correct, it is common practice but at odds with everything else. Property owners are not expected to contribute to the street, the sewers etc outside of their property tax, but it has been established that sidewalks are different for some reason or another.

    In many cases, the city makes itself only responsible for the corners.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Jass, Sidewalks are required for the building to perform as a business. If you open lets say a retail store in a building that you own, you have created an invitable property and as such you as the owner are responsible to assure the safety of those who exit and enter your structure.

    If this streetscape is going to be paid for with mostly Federal Enhancement dollars, the State where I reside requires that the local municipality is in charge of maintaining the improvement. Enhancement dollars also require matching funds, therefore if you can establish who is paying for the matching funds (private assessments, DDA, or Municipality) then you can pretty much tell who is going to be the entity that the municipality is going to download the maintenance onto.

    Incidentally the City of Detroit has a sidewalk program and works with the property owners to pay for the replacement of the sidewalks in front of their residences. My sidewalk is currently in pretty bad shape, therefore I have notified the DPW. Unfortunately, the City has not sent folks around to look at sidewalks in the neighborhoods for several years as these folks are embattled with the City getting sued over sidewalk ramps that were constructed pre ADA. I have done my due diligence in reporting this. I would probably do this myself however to get a concrete crew out to my location to replace two slabs would be a small fortune, it just makes more sense to have a crew that does this all at once along a block.
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  9. #9
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jass View post
    This is correct, it is common practice but at odds with everything else. Property owners are not expected to contribute to the street, the sewers etc outside of their property tax, but it has been established that sidewalks are different for some reason or another.
    The reason (whether it makes sense on the ground or not) is that the sidewalk actually runs through the edge of people's property but is established as a public easement. When I look at my property description, it says my property line goes all the way to the street edge (curb), not to where my yard hits the sidewalk. SO, the sidewalk is on my property, but I must maintain it as clear and safe for the public.

    Sewers, streets, etc. are officially on City property, not private property with public easements. My property line also goes to the middle of the alleyway and so I am also responsible for keeping the weeds down and the carriageway open.

    Why this is done, instead of extending the City controlled land (ie. the street) to include sidewalks, I don't know, but it probably has some historic precedent that made it into enough codes that changing it is too much hassle.
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  10. #10
    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by wahday View post
    The reason (whether it makes sense on the ground or not) is that the sidewalk actually runs through the edge of people's property but is established as a public easement. When I look at my property description, it says my property line goes all the way to the street edge (curb), not to where my yard hits the sidewalk. SO, the sidewalk is on my property, but I must maintain it as clear and safe for the public.
    What I like about that concept (assuming a sidewalk that's detached from the curb) is that it prevents the awkwardness of having parkway strips between the sidewalk and curb be a code compliance concern (being in public right-of-way.)

    The placement of signs in right-of-way is an ongoing labor of enforcement. The placement of a campaign or realtor sign between the sidewalk and the curb shouldn't be a big deal from a practical standpoint, it's just the municipality could be seen as endorsing the placement of a sign when it's done on public property. Your situation solves this.

  11. #11
    Okay, but those communities that clean their own sidewalks is like a form of courtesy, it's like clearing snow off of it. Though, in some cities you get a fine for not doing so!

    They don't really own the sidewalk, do they?

    I agree with all of you. Sidewalks should be public. The people need to have a way of getting around.

    Governments still care about people, right?

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by davsot View post
    Okay, but those communities that clean their own sidewalks is like a form of courtesy, it's like clearing snow off of it. Though, in some cities you get a fine for not doing so!

    They don't really own the sidewalk, do they?

    I agree with all of you. Sidewalks should be public. The people need to have a way of getting around.

    Governments still care about people, right?
    Ownership varies from place to place, but in most locatins, the sidewalks are located in teh public right-of-way and are owned by the local government. However, there is usually a local ordinance that requires the abutting propoerty owner to perform routine maintenance on the sidewalk, including things such a snow removal. Sidewalk replacement is another matter, because it has a greater cost.

    When new sidewalks are put in it is often at the time the property is developed. Just as the water mains, sanitary sewers, roadway, curb and gutter, and other public infrastructure are paid for by the property owner at the time of installation, some communities assess the property owner at the time that infrastructure is replaced or repaired. Other communities do not.

    It really is a matter of local policy.
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  13. #13
    Super Moderator kjel's avatar
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    The city I worked for in SC implemented a streetscape design a couple years ago. It was partially paid out of BID funds and state grants. The sidewalk maintenance is the city's responsibility.
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