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By Jan Goben
The Harry Street steps, which take climbers to an expansive view of Noe Valley and the downtown skyline below, are starting to sag and break down. And the neighbors who live on either side are frustrated to learn that they are responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dollars it might cost to replace them.
The steep arbored stairway, on the border between Noe Valley and Glen Park, is like a slice of English countryside tucked away from the noise of the city. It has quiet gardens and cottages nestled among trees and lush foliage, and the only clues to this enchanted universe are the street signs at either end of the stairs that simply read "Harry." Still, neighborhood walkers and nature lovers have long made the steps a favorite hiking path.
Roughly 15 years ago, after the foot traffic got too heavy, the city installed nearly 250 wooden steps in the hillside running from Laidley Street (near Harper) up to Beacon Street. Now, as the wood rots and weakens--and the steps, platforms, and handrails begin to give way--the neighbors, with the encouragement of Supervisor Bevan Dufty, are hoping to convince their fellow citizens that the cost of repairing the Harry Street steps should not fall on the backs of just a few property owners.
"This is a city responsibility," said David Gast, whose home sits along the steps. "There are four houses on the steps that only have access to their homes from the steps." There are four other homes alongside the steps, at the top and bottom, which the city also considers responsible for paying the bill.
Bill DiFrancesco, who has lived on the steps for 30 years, remembers when the hillside had no stairs, just some concrete steps in a few spots. But he too wants the city to shoulder the cost of step repairs, because of the many visitors, including his own, that Harry Street attracts.
"I had a big 30-year anniversary party with 100 people last year," DiFrancesco said. Beforehand, he contacted the city about some of the stairs that needed to be shored up. When the city was not quick to respond with the fixes, DiFrancesco and his friends, afraid that someone might get hurt, replaced the worst steps before the big day.
This year, the city came out in mid-June and made a temporary $3,500 fix, replacing about a dozen planks along the steps, as well as placing lumber along the top of the handrails at the top of the stairs.
Gast, who moved to his house on the steps four years ago, began working with Dufty's office shortly after that, to request that the city remove a eucalyptus tree at the bottom of the steps that was dropping leaves, nuts, "and potentially limbs on neighboring houses."
Gast drew up a petition that was signed by nearly 100 neighbors who wanted the tree removed, he said, and Dufty put him in contact with the Department of Public Works, which did remove the tree, asking in return that neighbors plant something of equal value.
"We planted several smaller trees and a live oak up the street," Gast said.
So when the stairs began to give way, Gast contacted DPW to find out what it would do to alleviate the situation. It was then that he learned that DPW classifies steps as either "accepted" or "unaccepted." The Harry Street steps are "unaccepted," Gast was told, meaning that the neighbors are responsible for the cost of all repairs and replacements, and liable if someone gets injured on the stairway and sues the city.
"The city attorney's legal opinion is that stairs are the responsibility of the property owner to maintain," confirmed Rachelle McManus, a legislative aide to Supervisor Dufty. To check Harry's status, she said, "the DPW folks went out and gave an estimate of the damage," McManus said. "They estimated it would cost $40,000 to replace the top 40 stairs. The top 40 stairs are in the worst condition."
The temporary $3,500 fix was made, McManus explained, because it was a smaller amount of money and part of an existing fund that City Administrator Ed Lee was able to tap for the repairs.
"Ed Lee helped us find some nickels-in-the-couch money," said McManus. A larger sum, such as the $40,000 for the top 40 steps, would have to go to the Board of Supervisors, she said. In her opinion, however, "that would not pass the board."
But in a city famous for its walkability, and with stairways that offer stunning views, Supervisor Dufty believes the repairs should not be left to the neighbors alone, McManus said. "Bevan [agrees] this is obviously a citywide problem."
In an e-mail McManus sent on behalf of Dufty to the Harry Street residents, she wrote: "This issue is apparently citywide and comes up almost every time a public staircase needs repairs, as property owners have never been uniformly noticed of their responsibility."
McManus said Dufty was currently canvassing local groups and stairway residents around the city to see which direction they might want to go. "His ideal situation would be to create a small citywide maintenance fund," she said. The fund could come from designating a portion of property taxes without raising property taxes, or by passing a parcel tax specifically for stairs in the city, or by creating a special use district, she said. The issue might show up on the November ballot, if one of the ideas gains support.
In any case, it's an uphill climb, and the Harry Street staircase will not be replaced anytime soon. Meanwhile, the neighbors remain united in their frustration.
"The city put the stairs in [15 years ago]. They put in irrigation to water the plants around the stairs--this is a city responsibility," Gast said. "Eight of us [neighbors] are not going to take responsibility for a city's worth of use on the Harry steps."