The Cost and/or value of sidewalks

Maple Street project map

Last week, I went to the first neighborhood meeting for the Maple Street reconstruction project.

One planned addition for this street is adding sidewalk on the east side of 44′ wide collector street with existing sidewalk on the west side.  So far in my Northfield experience, sidewalks – new sidewalks where none had existed before, that is – always generate opposition and Maple Street is no exception.

Here are the biggest objections plus the existing policy infrastructure of the City:

Property value: Sidewalks will lower property values.  For a particular home in Northfield, it’s difficult to say whether adding a sidewalk raises or lowers property value without a comparison of similar homes with and without sidewalks.  However, realtors are reporting higher prices and preference for neighborhoods with high walkability – sidewalks, places to walk to, proximity to stores, schools and other services.  In addition to Complete Streets advocates, powerful lobbying groups like AARP are advocating for neighborhoods with better pedestrian and transit opportunities.  There’s no readily available evidence to show sidewalks lower property values, except when they’re in poor condition.

Cost: New sidewalks are too expensive.  On the individual plus side, Northfield does not assess property owners for sidewalks.  On the collective downside, the cost of new sidewalks is spread across the entire tax base of the city.  Policy-wise, I think this means the City believes the sidewalk network benefits the entire community, not just the property over which they run.  As a dollar amount, sidewalks add to the cost.  However, if the citywide goal is a comprehensive sidewalk network, this is the least expensive way to do it.

Usefulness: No one will use it (because: they walk in the street anyway, there’s a sidewalk on the other side, there aren’t sidewalks on connecting streets). Obviously, neither I nor the folks on Maple can know what will happen on a future improvement since it’s not there yet.  There is a sidewalk on the west side, but there is also a sidewalk on the east side further south and I look at the addition of sidewalk as completing an unfinished project to link Jefferson Parkway (and soccer fields, walking trails, playground) more completely.

There are not sidewalks on connecting streets yet.  Certainly Woodley Street is the most critical street on which to add sidewalks to connect to Maple and when that segment is set to be reconstructed, I am sure sidewalks will be a major topic (we try to add sidewalks when reconstructing streets to decrease the overall cost). Retrofitting sidewalks is an incremental process – right now, the opportunity is Maple Street (and our other 2012 projects on Linden/Lockwood, Roosevelt Drive and 8th Street).

Neighborhood character: Adding a sidewalk will change/ruin the neighborhood.  There are several issues which surface here: loss of trees, loss of green yard space, or just that the look will be different.  Certainly the sidewalk is a change, however, it may not be a bad one.  The city is really trying to find ways to save mature trees and increase the number of trees overall, but, yes, trees may be removed for both the street reconstruction and a few more for the sidewalk.  The yard space is city-owned right of way, so there’d be the loss of use of it, but no loss of property (private landscaping in the right of way may be destroyed).  Perhaps, a sidewalk will be a place kids will play, families will meet, and more kids will walk to school.  But, yes, a sidewalk will change the neighborhood.

Safety: Most sidewalk opponents considered the west side sidewalk sufficient for safety (traffic speed was the big safety issue- and it is a big one).  For me, however, it’s a big consideration.  There’s a lot of research to show that pedestrians are safer on sidewalks.  With Sibley School in the middle of this stretch of street, there are elementary school kids walking to school from all directions including through Sibley Swale park which empties onto Maple almost at the school with no sidewalk or obvious place to cross to the other side.  Starting in January, Northfield Transit begins its route deviation system which will run south to north on Maple Street so people will board (and wait) on the no-sidewalk side.

Established city policy and practice: Northfield has developed policies to support connectivity, foster streets as places for people to meet and interact, increase pedestrian access, and pedestrian safety.  Northfield’s Comprehensive Plan and Transportation Plan lay the policy groundwork for a multi-modal transportation network with high quality, pedestrian friendly streets.  The addition of the sidewalk on Maple Street is called for by the Safe Routes to School study completed in 2009.  The Land Development Code calls for sidewalks on both sides of collector streets (of which Maple is one).   We’re planning for a Complete Streets policy to ensure streets are safe and accessible for all.  Maple Street is an opportunity to continue implementing this vision and eliminate a gap in our sidewalk network.