In an effort to make routes to local schools safer and eliminate tripping hazards for pedestrians, some sidewalks in the Barron Park neighborhood recently received safety upgrades, including new curb ramps for wheelchairs.
But getting onto the sidewalk is one thing; getting off it is another. In the historically rural-feeling neighborhood, some sidewalks end abruptly mid-block, 50 or so feet from the intersection, pitching people who use wheelchairs or walkers into dirt, gravel, weeds or decorative bark.
In some cases, the sidewalk slopes at a steep angle that could cause a wheel chair to tip.
For these new ramps, which comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, taxpayers are shelling out at least $21,600 -- $1,800 for each -- according to the project contract.
The Weekly recently counted 12 new ramps on sidewalks that connect to unpaved areas.
In addition to new ramps, sidewalk repairs -- including curb and gutter upgrades -- are part of an ongoing city program started in 1989. Repairs along two stretches of partial sidewalks on La Para and Laguna avenues cost about $24,950, including the new ADA ramps, city staff confirmed.
The city's fiscal-year 2016 capital budget states the sidewalk repairs are being done to create "better sidewalk conditions and a potential reduction in sidewalk-related injuries," and a Jan. 12 staff report noted that the repairs "will address sidewalk deficiencies."
Barron Park resident and city watchdog Bob Moss said that state law requires the city to have wheelchair ramps, "but if the sidewalk ends 20 feet after the intersection, I'm not sure that anyone cares" from an enforcement standpoint. The requirement is one of those generic laws that doesn't really consider practical accessibility.
"Functionally, it is a waste of money, since people are not going to take wheelchairs up onto the sidewalk to go a few feet into the dirt," he said. But he added that the city might not have any option, since the law requires the ramps.
"The only alternative is to do a cost comparison and ask, 'If we didn't have a (full) sidewalk, how much would it cost me to remove it?'" he said.
Brad Eggleston, assistant director of public works, said the city did not evaluate removing the sidewalks. They are not scheduled for extensions, nor are they likely to be.
Barron Park Historian Doug Graham said that in the early 1960s, Santa Clara County implemented municipal-standard curbs and gutters in some developments within Barron Park, such as along the area southwest of Laguna Avenue. That's why some parts of Barron Park have sidewalks, and some don't.
Sidewalks were "a big issue" about 50 years ago, when Palo Alto wanted to annex the neighborhood and planned to charge residents for the costs of adding sidewalks, curbs and gutters, Graham said.
Residents feared they would be "bled dry" by the city's rigid enforcement of sidewalk and street infrastructure. When the city annexed Barron Park in 1975, residents fought to keep their neighborhood rural and relatively sidewalk-free. While residents successfully persuaded the city not to force curbs, gutters and sidewalks on Barron Park, the city did install sidewalks if people wanted them, and that's why some of the sidewalks abruptly end, Graham said.
A 1993 "Barron Park Drainage and Street Design Guidelines" city report established that collector streets "shall be candidates for pedestrian walkways if there is space available outside the existing pavement and within the city street right-of-way."
But, the report noted, "Walkways shall not be constructed on any street unless they are requested by the adjacent residents."
Where a city standard sidewalk exists, it will not be extended, the report states. But residents can request removal of a sidewalk if it extends for less than a block and the removal has unanimous support of residents of abutting properties, the report noted.
Moss said that he can't recall any instance of a property owner wanting a sidewalk added in front of their house since the agreement between the city and the neighborhood was put in place. But where limited sidewalks exist, most probably a developer would have added it when putting in the new home. Most developers would just assume a sidewalk is desired around a property, he said.
Without a cost comparison, Moss said it can't be known if removing the sidewalk would be less expensive than making it accessible. But "probably it would take more to take out 40 feet of concrete than to add an ADA ramp."