While Seattle officials admit the ordinance was aimed at developers, they expect Jesus Barajas to spend nearly $15,000 on a sidewalk as part of rebuilding his modest home.

Share story

Jesus Barajas wanted granite countertops and hardwood floors but is settling for Formica and carpet. Instead of hiring professional house painters and landscapers, he now plans to do the work himself.

The soured economy is part of the reason Barajas is downsizing his dreams for the new, 2,400-square-foot home he’s building on property he’s owned for nearly 30 years. Mostly, though, he’s cutting back on amenities to pay for construction of a sidewalk outside his front door.

The price tag: nearly $15,000 for a 60-foot strip of asphalt.

Seattle officials admit Barajas is an unintended target of a year-old city ordinance meant to force developers to provide infrastructure improvements in the city’s 22 designated urban villages. Although the ordinance was directed at developers and not a private homeowner tearing down an existing house to build anew — and the sidewalk likely will be the only one on Barajas’ street for years, if not decades — they say there’s nothing they can do to waive the requirement.

“This is sort of a rare instance,” said Bryan Stevens, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Planning and Development. “… It may feel like a sidewalk to nowhere, but others will come.”

That may be so, but spending thousands of dollars on a sidewalk — one unlikely to have much impact on pedestrian safety — is “like throwing away money,” Barajas said.

Given the slow pace of development in his neighborhood, Barajas’ sidewalk may have to be replaced by the time others come to the block.

Barajas, a janitor for King County Metro since 1990, and his wife, Maria, a housekeeper at a downtown hotel, have saved for 12 years to afford the down payment on their $250,000 construction loan.

“I just want something to live comfortable after I retire,” said Barajas, 61, adding that the new house will be his teenage daughter’s inheritance.

The financial sting of building a sidewalk is all the more painful because Barajas wouldn’t need one if he lived on the west side of 32nd Avenue South, instead of the east side. That’s because the western boundary of the MLK at Holly Street urban village is the center line of Barajas’ narrow residential street.

Infrastructure politics

Second maybe only to school closures, sidewalks remain a hot political topic, said Sally Clark, a City Council member who chairs the council’s Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee.

Pedestrian safety is a “huge, huge” issue, particularly along routes leading to schools and bus stops, she said.

Between 2000 and 2008, 86 pedestrians were killed in Seattle and 118 died elsewhere in King County, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Of 6,868 pedestrians injured countywide between 2001 and 2008, slightly more than half were hurt in Seattle, state records show. Statewide, most pedestrians involved in collisions are struck either crossing or walking in a roadway.

Sidewalks aren’t “that hot a deal if you’re living on Capitol Hill, where there’s a network of sidewalks to begin with,” Clark said. But the existence of sidewalks is “totally hit or miss” outside Seattle’s original city limits — areas north of North 85th Street and south of South Spokane Street. Even if a neighborhood’s business core has sidewalks, the story may be different once you venture onto nearby side streets, she said.

As of 2007, there were 2,131 miles of sidewalk, according to the city. But 952 miles of city streets — or roughly 15,200 blocks — had no sidewalks at all.

On average, developers build 138 blocks of sidewalks a year, said Rick Sheridan, a city transportation-department spokesman. In addition, the city built 150 blocks of sidewalks during 2004 and 2005 and 89 blocks in the two years afterward. An additional 89 blocks were planned for 2008 and 2009.

“Every budget year, we try to figure out how to put a little more money into sidewalks, just to knock off a few more blocks,” Clark said. “Year after year, we make a small dent.”

Neighborhoods such as Pinehurst to the north and Columbia City to the south were annexed by Seattle during the first decade of the 1900s, Clark explained. While sidewalks “were one of the promises of annexation,” providing them has proved costly and difficult, especially in recent decades as new rules governing “impervious surfaces” have been adopted to protect salmon from stormwater runoff.

In the mid-1990s, under then-Mayor Norm Rice’s leadership, city leaders and residents began planning how to manage Seattle’s growth, creating 38 urban centers and villages. The idea was to “put growth where we already have density” and create “basic infrastructure to support” the influx of new people and jobs, Clark said.

But sections of the land-use code proved inadequate when it came to providing sidewalks for a growing number of pedestrians who were moving into new town houses, condo and apartments in the city’s urban centers and villages.

A “mass of people” complained to City Council members — and the message was always the same: “I generally hear that developers get off too easily, that developers get away with murder in the city of Seattle,” Clark said. “People want us to hold developers accountable to put infrastructure into our neighborhoods.”

In December 2007, the council unanimously repealed sections of the land-use code, replacing them with an ordinance requiring new sidewalks in urban centers and villages “whenever development is proposed that abuts any existing street without a sidewalk,” according to city code. The new ordinance went into effect in February 2008.

While there are exceptions to the sidewalk rule — including when a property owner alters or adds an addition to an existing structure — none applies to Barajas.

“Mr. Barajas is obviously not in the mold of a regular developer who builds two or three houses at the same time or a pack of town homes,” Clark said. “He’s unusual, he’s not the norm and (his situation) is certainly not what the code anticipates.”

Frustrating talks

Homebuilder Olivier Prock has spent countless hours trying to negotiate with city staffers on Barajas’ behalf. While city employees in the planning and development office were unable to waive the sidewalk requirement, Prock won a small concession from the city: Instead of pouring a concrete walkway, Barajas can use asphalt, saving about $1,000. Barajas also won’t have to pay to widen the street outside his home.

But he still has to pay for an engineer, a surveyor and an excavator. He also has to pay for a transportation-department review and inspection, along with traffic control while the sidewalk is built and street cleaning after it’s done. By Prock’s estimate, the sidewalk — measuring 60 feet long and 6 feet wide with a 5-foot-wide planting strip and curb abutting the road — will cost $13,920 to $14,420.

“At first I thought they were joking, I thought they misread the code,” Prock said, standing outside Barajas’ 1950s gray bungalow that’s become so rundown that it no longer makes sense to spend money on repairs.

Black mold stains some of the walls, the roof leaks and bees have found their way inside.

Building a sidewalk on the property now “is not going to achieve their goal of pedestrian safety, and it’s never going to achieve the goal of a continuous sidewalk,” Prock said.

The last new home on Barajas’ street was built 10 years ago, he said. At that rate, Prock figures it could take 100 years or longer for a continuous sidewalk to be built.

“We’ll all be dead and buried, and by that time, Mr. Barajas’ sidewalk would have outlived its useful life,” he said.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com