Noe Valley Voice June 2012

White Dots Have Residents Seeing Red

But City Says It’s Time for Noe to Repair Sidewalks

By Heather World

The splotches of white paint that appeared on sidewalks in May drove two Noe Valley kids to post a sign expressing their strong disapproval.     Photo by Pamela Gerard

 City inspectors have peppered Noe Valley sidewalks with spray-painted dots, sending ripples of anger and confusion through the neighborhood as property owners learn they must replace marked squares in front of their homes.

The dots are the work of the Department of Public Works, which is sweeping through city neighborhoods as part of a 25-year cycle to ensure safe sidewalks, said Gloria Chan, a spokeswoman for the agency. The effort began in 2007, and this April was Noe Valley’s turn.

“Part of DPW’s role is to make sure the public right-of-way is safe to travel on, especially for people who are elderly, people who have a disability, and even 

parents who have strollers with kids in them,” she said.

Though sidewalks are city property, maintenance is the responsibility of the property owner, a common urban practice that held up against a court challenge in San Jose, said District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener.

“The required repair should focus on significant issues: broken, unsafe conditions, roots pushing up sidewalks,” he said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to require property owners to spend money to repair something that doesn’t need to be repaired.”

The dots at the corner of Diamond and Elizabeth streets were baffling to neighbors because some squares looked as if they had no flaws.     Photo by Pamela Gerard

Cracks Few and Far Between

Indeed, not all marked squares look flawed, said Jerry Polon, who found 15 dotted squares in front of his home in early May.

“We’re not talking about safety issues, like tree root-lifted sections,” said Polon, who has lived on 25th Street for 40 years. “It’s anything with the slightest crack line or edge wear, or sometimes no deterioration at all.”

Chan said the dots are followed by a formal notice in the mail, and anyone with questions about their marks should call the inspector listed on their form.

“That’s what they’re there for,” she said. “The inspector will walk them through what the process is.”

Based on his notice, Polon assumed he would have to spend thousands of dollars on permits and concrete. He was pleasantly surprised when he called his inspector, who told him he need merely repair slightly flawed squares.

“There is repair versus replace,” Polon said. Minor flaws can be ground down and patched over to create a smooth surface, the department confirmed.

Dotted squares that have no visible damage may have been marked because they are likely to be damaged when a nearby square with cracks is replaced, the inspector told Polon.

Driving Her Dotty

The news came as a surprise to Julia McCloskey, who stood surveying the 33 dots in front of her 25th Street house.

“It doesn’t make any sense at all,” said McCloskey, who replaced 16 squares in the last decade, 11 of which were dotted in mid-May. Some squares have hairline fractures, some have small corner bits chipped away, but some have no visible damage at all.

Annuzzi Concrete Services, Inc. quotes a ballpark estimate of $100 to repair nine square feet of sidewalk, which is a typical square. The department charges permit fees of $6 plus $17.30 per square foot of work, and $115.42 for the street space in front of the property. The total cost can be daunting.

“This is not something that is easy for me,” said McCloskey, who bought her home 20 years ago when Noe Valley was less expensive.

A neighbor, Don Norton, passed by and voiced a commonly heard opinion among city residents.

“They waste so much money, and they rely on us to foot the bill,” said Norton, who replaced a square of the sidewalk in front of his house of his own accord not long ago.

Half-Inch Gaps Targeted

Chan said permit fees go directly back to the department to pay for its costs.

“We’re tasked to carry out a lot of codes and laws,” she said. “We do not generate any revenue. It’s about making sure these rights-of-way are safe.”

Though every street will eventually be checked, inspectors are focusing now on commercial corridors, areas with high pedestrian traffic, and those near schools and bus stops, according to the agency. The department targets 1/2-inch or bigger gaps, be those cracks, chips, holes, or the gutters between squares.

Homeowners aren’t the only ones being dotted for repairs. Blue dots are the responsibility of the water department, yellow dots are for Pacific Gas & Electric, and green dots are for city-maintained property.

In the end, Polon was surprised to find himself satisfied with the department’s explanation.

“You have the expectation of a certain kind of bureaucratic greed—it’s all about making money for the city—but it didn’t turn out so bad at all,” he said. One replacement option was to have the city do the work, and the price was much less than Polon thought it would be.

“So much less that I’m thinking maybe I will have [all the squares] replaced,” he said.