A sidewalk in need of repair in the Berkeley Hills. File photo: Jerome Paulos

Walk around this city these days, and you may notice fresh stretches of concrete underfoot — sidewalk that’s been recently repaired or restored.

This doesn’t mean other sections of Berkeley’s 400 miles of sidewalk aren’t rough, rocky or dangerously uneven (mostly from the push of tree roots). It would take $50 million-plus to fix all sidewalks citywide, according to a spring 2022 city estimate.

But in the often confusing world of sidewalk responsibility and repair, the city is reporting steady progress in problem-solving, according to Scott Ferris, Berkeley parks director. Recent work is largely attributed to voter-approved Measure T, a $100 million infrastructure and facilities improvement bond, passed in 2016.

“The sidewalk repair backlog has shrunk from 10+ years to 3-4 years, mostly because Measure T1 is funding more repairs,” Ferris wrote in an email.

The repair backlog Ferris refers to specifically applies to a city program that splits the cost of sidewalk repairs with property owners.

Chronically underfunded, the 50/50 cost-share program had a waiting list of years. So long that some program applicants forgot they had even applied, according to several messages sent to Berkeleyside over the past year. People were confused by letters from the city saying their sidewalks were up for repair work and asking for 50% of the cost. 

Measure T funds are helping with sidewalk catch-up, Ferris said.

Budgeted in stages or phases, the bond has helped fund around 2,811 sidewalk repairs through the 50/50 program since 2019, Ferris said, including around 550 jobs in the past year. It will assist with another 575 repairs in 2023. 

This leaves 350 to 450 applications waiting, with the goal of completing these projects in a few years, Ferris said, noting this list isn’t static and always changes.

Property owners responsible for sidewalk conditions

Many people assume city sidewalks, like roads, are maintained by the city. 

But in Berkeley, as in most cities in the state, responsibility for sidewalk repair is on property owners.

State and local law place sidewalk maintenance as the responsibility of the property owner,” said Matthai Chakko, city spokesperson. Maintenance must meet city standards.

This also means property owners are liable for legal action stemming from bad sidewalks.

According to the Berkeley Municipal Code: A property owner “owes a duty to members of the public to keep [their] sidewalk in a safe condition. If said owner fails to maintain said sidewalk in a safe condition, and a person sustains injury or damage as a result of said failure, then the owner shall be liable to such person for the resulting injury or damage.”

It would take $50 million-plus to fix all sidewalks citywide, according to a spring 2022 city estimate.

Cities can take on responsibility for sidewalk maintenance under local ordinance, though few do.

Cities can also pitch in to help, such as with the 50/50 program, which is statewide.

Participation in the 50/50 program is by application. All property owners are eligible, and projects are completed on a first-come, first-served basis, Ferris said.

After applying, property owners receive a letter from the city saying, in part:

“Please note that this program is extremely popular and the waitlist is long. Please be advised that being on this waitlist does not waive your liability in the event of a third-party injury, and it does not Relieve your responsibility as property owner to maintain the sidewalk adjacent to your property in a safe and usable condition.”

‘Make Safe’ repairs

There’s another way Berkeley steps in for more urgent sidewalk repairs. 

Berkeley sidewalk repair is primarily complaint driven, Ferris said. Complaints drive city inspections, which drive notices to property owners.

If the city doesn’t receive any complaints about a sidewalk issue, the problem can persist. 

Ferris said the city responds to all complaints, though some people contacting Berkeleyside said they alerted the city to dangerous sidewalks, without seeing any changes.

Property owners worried about their sidewalks can always make repairs themselves, using city-approved contractors. Or, they can apply for the 50/50 program, risking a wait. 

But sidewalk inspections may also drive emergency repairs.

The city does temporary “make-safe” sidewalk repairs “all the time,” said Joe Enke, city engineer, usually asphalt patching and filling. Property owners are told they’re responsible for permanent fixes.  

A “make safe” repair may last until someone’s name comes to the top of the 50/50 list.

The city also does sidewalk shaving or grinding, at no cost to property owners. Sidewalk shaving, a relatively quick process, can reduce or eliminate tripping hazards. “We do repairs as they are brought to our attention,” Enke said.

Patching almost always eventually needs additional work, Enke said. But shaving “can solve many identified issues.”  

A city shaving contractor just started $1 million worth of work focused on schools and areas in Southwest and Northwest Berkeley,” Enke said.

Street trees belong to the city

One of the most common ways sidewalks are damaged is by tree roots, uplifting sections of concrete which easily snag feet or wheels. 

It’s easy to assume property owners, responsible for their sidewalks, are also responsible for trees growing in the strips of land between the sidewalk and the street.

But this isn’t so. Sidewalks are one thing, median strips another.

“It’s City Right of Way (ROW) and ownership of the ROW [is] complicated,” Ferris said. “The width of the ROW varies from street to street, but typically includes the curb, planting strip, the sidewalk and sometimes a narrow area beyond the sidewalk.

City tree care ultimately falls to the city, even when roots are damaging a sidewalk a property owner must repair.

“The City takes on responsibility of managing and maintaining the trees in the ROW in order to ensure that they are property maintained. The rest of the ROW (sidewalk/vegetation) is the responsibility of the homeowner,” Ferris said.

Property owners are welcome, and even encouraged, to partner with the city on tree care, Ferris said. City arborists will offer advice. 

But city tree care ultimately falls to the city, even when roots are damaging a sidewalk a property owner must repair.

The worst offenders are some older trees, including liquidambar and camphor trees. To address this challenge, the city’s urban foresters are now planting urban site-suitable species such as trident maple, redbud, Chinese flame, Brisbane box, Persian ironwood, Chinese pistache, and water gum, said Chakko, the city spokesperson.

In Berkeley, as in many cities, many older street trees that are now recognized as poor choices for urban environments were planted before this was clearly understood. 

Climate change is also affecting the health of street trees, Chakko said. 

Disability survey will shed more light on sidewalks

Soon, Berkeley will know more about the state of its sidewalks. A sidewalk inspection required by the Americans With Disability Act (ADA) was recently completed, Enke said.

“Nearly all of the city sidewalks were surveyed,” Enke said. A contractor did the work.

The survey is one part of the city’s ADA Self Evaluation and Transition Plan, a framework for complying with pedestrian accessibility requirements of the federal law.  The initial plan was completed years ago, but updates are required.

“ADA compliance is ongoing. A timeline for accessibility improvements, including sidewalks, will be developed as the plan is finalized,” Enke said. Budgeting for ADA compliance is up to the city. 

Public hearings and reports are part of the transition plan. 

To report a broken or dangerous sidewalk or to get information on repairing the sidewalk by your house, including the city’s free shaving or the 50/50 cost sharing program contact theBerkeley Public Works sidewalk division by emailing PWSidewalks@cityofberkeley.info or calling 510-981-2489.

This story has been corrected to better explain which types of trees are most likely to cause sidewalk damage and how urban foresters are addressing the issue. A previous version of the story listed as problematic some types of trees that, the city says, are actually well suited for urban environments.

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...