(Reported by Dan Petrella of CU-CitizenAccess)
The city of Champaign came up with a plan 25 years ago to repair deteriorating sidewalks.
Since then, the city has fixed some old ones and developers have built new sidewalks in new subdivisions.
But in some of the older areas in town - many of which are home to low-income residents - the city never had a plan to install sidewalks and has never done so.
In fact, despite the city's goal of being a "walking community," about one-fourth of its streets lack sidewalks, according to planning documents.
Champaign's 2011 comprehensive plan states that development should be "designed to promote street life and encourage walking with interconnected sidewalks, trails and streets." Sidewalks also provide a safe way for children to walk to school, for those who use public transit to get to their bus stops and even for residents to walk their dogs, city officials say.
"Sidewalks are an important element in promoting walkability and recreation," Lacey Rains Lowe, a Champaign city planner, said in an email interview.
Leslie Kimble lives in Dobbins Downs, one of the older neighborhoods in town without a complete sidewalk system. The subdivision, located just north of Interstate 74, was originally developed outside Champaign's limits, but a portion of the neighborhood has since been annexed into the city.
It is one of the lower-income areas in town, a factor Kimble thinks adds to the neighborhood's need for sidewalks.
"Because our neighborhood is low-income, there are many people without cars," Kimble said. "Sidewalks in our neighborhood, especially leading along Anthony Drive to all the stores and restaurants, would be very helpful, not to mention much more safe."
City documents show that planners are aware of the problem.
"Some streets (in Dobbins Downs) have sidewalks while others do not, resulting in a disjointed system," according to the city's comprehensive plan. This limits residents' access to nearby employers and the restaurants and stores on North Prospect Avenue.
Sidewalks not required until 1970s
The condition of a neighborhood's sidewalk system is directly related to planning regulations at the time the neighborhood was developed, according to city documents and planning officials
Lynn Dearborn, a University of Illinois professor of urban and regional planning, said the fact that many of the neighborhoods without sidewalks are lower income is most likely a coincidence.
"Whether a neighborhood in the city has a sidewalk system is largely based upon when it was developed and what state policy was," Dearborn said. "I've noticed parts of the city that are more well-to-do but still are lacking sidewalks in some areas."
Prior to the early 1970s, Champaign, like Urbana and many other cities, did not require sidewalks in residential areas. That meant neighborhoods developed during the 1950s and 1960s never had any installed. Since then, it has been mandatory for all new developments - residential, commercial and industrial - to have sidewalks installed along their streets.
But constructing sidewalks in older neighborhoods is complicated and expensive due to existing infrastructure and the need to negotiate right-of-way agreements with property owners, according to planning documents.
"When a neighborhood is designed without key urban design elements ... it is much, much harder and more costly to locate and build those things after the fact," Rains Lowe, the city planner, said.
Champaign's ongoing financial woes make it unlikely that this situation will change in the foreseeable future. Adopted in 2008, Champaign's transportation master plan says that "adding sidewalks on the miles and miles of arterials, collectors and local streets is not financially possible in existing neighborhoods."
Meanwhile, the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 reduced some funding for repairing aging sidewalks.
Sidewalks increase by 32 percent
The mileage of sidewalks throughout the city has increased by 32 percent in five years, from about 267 miles of sidewalks in 2005 to 352 miles in 2010, according to city documents. This is a result of new development, annexation and a handful of projects that built new sidewalks in existing areas of the city.
Before retiring in May, Gup Kramer, former concrete supervisor for the Champaign Public Works Department, said that creating new sidewalks is not the city's main priority. For the past 25 years, the plan has been to fix up sidewalks that have deteriorated over time but not install more in most existing neighborhoods.
As part of the city's sidewalk rehabilitation program, enacted in 1985, Public Works budgets about $400,000 for sidewalk repairs each year. The department's Engineering Division also provides about $200,000 annually for repairs through its neighborhood infrastructure repair program.
But cuts to the Public Works budget this year will slow the pace of sidewalk repairs.
Sidewalks lacking in higher income areas too
Gabe Lewis, a transportation planner with the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, has studied pedestrian issues extensively through his work on the Champaign-Urbana Safe Routes to School Project.
The project's goals include educating the public about the safest ways for pedestrians and bikers to get to school and identifying problems, such as a lack of sidewalks, that keep kids from walking and biking.
While some lower-income schools lack sidewalks in the surrounding area, the problem is not exclusive to these neighborhoods, Lewis said.
For example, the lack of sidewalks in the neighborhood south of Kirby Avenue and east of Prospect Avenue is a major barrier that prevents students from walking to Bottenfield Elementary School, according to the Safe Routes to School report. Bottenfield, 1801 S. Prospect Ave., is located in a higher-income neighborhood and has a smaller percentage of low-income students than the Champaign school district as a whole.
The Safe Routes to School Project has worked with the city of Champaign to try to obtain funding to fill in gaps in sidewalk systems near schools.
Late last year, the city and the Regional Planning Commission applied for a grant through the Illinois Department of Transportation that would pay for improvements near Stratton Elementary School, 902 N. Randolph St., where about 70 percent of students come from low-income families. Among the proposed upgrades is a new section of sidewalk on Neil Street between Edgebrook Drive and Kenyon Road.
Since 2001, Champaign has financed projects to fill gaps in the existing sidewalk system, focusing its attention on areas near schools and places where safety problems exist or where gaps are less than one block long. The city spent about $155,000 on such projects last year and has budgeted about $95,000 every other year for the next 10 years for additional projects.
The city also has a goal of constructing sidewalks along major roadways that currently do not have them, but there is a $2 million backlog for such projects, according city documents.
Residents who want sidewalks in their neighborhood have the option of requesting that they be built and splitting the cost with the city. But, according city documents, this program has never been used.
Urbana, which also has several older neighborhoods without sidewalks, offers a similar cost-sharing program. But Bill Gray, Urbana's Public Works director, said he hasn't seen it used in his 20 years with the city.
"People are usually resigned to the lack of sidewalks in these residential areas, or they're not willing to share in the cost (of building them)," he said.
Jeff Marino, a Champaign city planner, said some residents don't want sidewalks built in their neighborhoods because they don't want to give up a portion of their yard for a public right-of-way.
Garden Hills gets new sidewalks
But in some neighborhoods, residents welcome new sidewalks.
The Garden Hills subdivision just south of I-74 is another neighborhood that never had sidewalks. Built during the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood is home to some of the city's poorest residents.
Amy Revilla, president of the United Garden Hills Neighborhood Association, said that the city has taken steps toward installing more walkways in her neighborhood.
"Sidewalks have always been a concern of ours, mostly on Paula Drive, where there is a lot of foot traffic," Revilla said. "The city of Champaign has done a great job in doing what they can, but funding is always an issue."
Using about $200,000 in federal stimulus funds, the city built two blocks of new sidewalks along Paula Drive last year and made improvements to sidewalk ramps near Garden Hills Elementary School. The city plans to build another block of sidewalks along Paula later this year, Chris Sokolowski, a Champaign civil engineer, said in an email.
Need for those with disabilities
One purpose of sidewalks that may be overlooked by many is accessibility for people with disabilities.
Kramer, the former concrete supervisor, said the city was ahead of its time when it came to accessible infrastructure for the disabled. In 1987, Champaign passed a policy that required the installation of sidewalk access ramps whenever curbs or sidewalks were replaced.
Five years later, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required ramps to be installed throughout the country. Since the act was put in place, ramps have not been installed in neighborhoods that never had sidewalks to begin with.
Sokolowski said that the recent struggles of the economy and reductions in revenue have caused the city to cut back on its spending on capital-improvement projects and focus primarily on maintaining existing infrastructure.
The current financial climate makes it a challenge to keep up with needed repairs. Before his retirement in May, Kramer's sidewalk-repair crew was cut from eight workers to seven.
"Champaign is a leader in all infrastructure," Kramer said. "We've been very aggressive. But a city is like a homeowner: if you have money, then you can make the repairs. I expect there to be less money in the future, and less repairs.
(Photo by Dan Petrella of CU-CitizenAccess)