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.

7 thoughts on “The Cost and/or value of sidewalks

  1. Actually, I can just about prove that sidewalks do not lower property values. (Though they don’t seem to raise them, either.) I did a final project just now on property values in comparison to street width and sidewalk coverage. See PDF poster (slow download).

    I’m inclined to think that the best response to sidewalk objections is, simply, “this is how we do a street in Northfield.” That’s established in our transportation plan for collector and arterial roadways, and for all streets in the LDC. I think the Jefferson reactions were revelatory: the homeowners felt singled out, felt their yards were being unreasonably invaded, etc. They noted the absence of the sidewalks on Woodley St, saying those were more necessary. I think it’s easy to just say, “your street is the one we’re working on now; we install sidewalks on both sides whenever right-of-way and topography permit. Period.” It seems better to bring up a list like this when asked to explain why the City has set a full sidewalk standard, rather than trying to justify each individual street’s sidewalk. Nobody asks the Council to justify street lights or curbs (well, once or twice, they have been asked for that). If sidewalks were as ubiquitous in new and replacement work, people wouldn’t be objecting to them either.

    • Oh, and one response to a particular argument: people walk in the street most often when there is not a sidewalk on the side they want to be on. Most people will not cross a street (especially one the width of a small freeway) to use the sidewalk.

      I lived in the Norwegian House at St. Olaf, on W 1st St, which was reconstructed while I was living there, with a sidewalk on only one side — infuriatingly, the side that the houses were not on. The result was that we would have had to cross the street twice to use it (since the access to campus was on the same side as the houses). This wasn’t even a theoretical option during the winter, as the boulevard got to be at least a foot deep in snow. The result is that the 15-or-so college students who would be using that sidewalk every day instead walk in the street.

      • Sean is 100% correct on this, IMO.
        It should not be as hard a question to answer to residents as it always seems to be. The reply is: elected officials have made a policy decision about the kind of community that is wanted, there is no cost to the homeowner when the sidewalks are in a larger street reconstruction, and (here is where the difference is from former engineer’s positioning) because we value the community’s trees as much as you do, we will make every effort to save your boulevard trees, including ‘meandering’ the sidewalk.

        If the response is geared to the residents realistic concerns, and based on a community value, it should be successful.
        I also think the policy principles should be presented by the ward rep, not the staff, at any community meetings. All community meetings about a specific project should be attended by the ward council person to discuss the policy , and the staff to explain technical details.

        • Kiffi and Sean – I agree that the policy should be presented as “this is the way we do things” not “do you want us to do it this way?” – we are making progress, however, so I’m trying to work with staff to continue the incremental improvements until we reach that place/time.

  2. When I was applying to be on the City Council in 1998, I recall that the voters had recently defeated a sidewalk referendum by a 5-1 margin. I remember Peggy Prowe asking me what the Council could do to convince the voters to install sidewalks. My response was simple, “Admit that you were wrong. The voters don’t want sidewalks everyplace.”. Why force the voters to have something they clearly don’t want?

    To say “this is the way we do things” is not sound policy. If “we” means anything in this context, it certainly doesn’t mean the 80% who don’t want sidewalks. Furthermore, the next council or subsequent councils can always change a policy that is based upon the whims of the present council. It would be much better to have a sidewalk necessity policy. For example, there should be sidewalks on my street – Washington – because it is a major collector street and goes into downtown. But, it doesn’t make much sense to have sidewalks on cul-de-sac streets, or even the streets in Mayflower. The people there don’t want them, and the only people that use those streets get their by car.

    The people who are walking for recreation can walk on almost any street; they don’t need every street to have sidewalks. The people who walk by necessity are walking to a destination. I would guess that children are by far the largest pedestrian group, and they are walking to and from school. Make sure that the streets surrounding the schools have sidewalks and leave the social engineering outside these districts to the free market.

  3. Pingback: Northfield: Adding value to Woodley Street |

  4. We are currently going through this on our street in Brewster MA. The taking for trees and property to add sidwalks and change the entire configuration of the road. From a old winding road to a straight away with curbing and adding 4 ft on each side. (The complete streets policy) Has been horrific

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