Atlanta needs to stop closing its sidewalks to people

By Maria Saporta

Apparently I’m not alone in my distaste for the proliferation of closed sidewalks in our city.

Dozens of people let me know they agreed with last week’s column complaining about the epidemic of closed sidewalks – especially during new construction.

The refrain was the same. We can, and should, do better if we want to really be a cosmopolitan city. That led to the next obvious question, what do we need to do to stop the out-of-control practice of closing sidewalks that could and should remain open.

Actually, the City of Atlanta’s “Pedestrian Right of Way Access Policy” says many of the right things. Permits to close sidewalks should be limited to 90 days “to insure that that extended sidewalk closure does not take place.”

Bruce Rose sidewalks

Bruce Rose says people with disabilities find it nearly impossible to get around Midtown with so many closed sidewalks (Photos by Maria Saporta)

The policy specifies what developers must do to provide pedestrian access – including providing a “temporary covered, lighted walkway” that is ADA (American Disabilities Act) accessible.

It goes on to say that if a four-foot access cannot be achieved and if approved by City engineer; barricades, signage and ADA accessibility for pedestrian safety must be provided.”

But then the city gives developers an out.

“If a contractor cannot meet any of the above due to the structural necessities of the work to be completed, then pedestrian traffic can be directed to cross to the other side of the street.”

And that’s how the “exception” has become the rule.

One of SaportaReport’s readers did an inventory of an eight-block radius in Midtown. He counted 12 construction projects currently underway with a total of 25 blocks of sidewalks closed to pedestrians. Two additional blocks have scaffolding, but only one of those is fully ADA compliant.

For Bruce Rose, a Midtown resident who was born with cerebral palsy, the situation is out of control.

“As a person with an orthopedic disability, it’s frustrating and dangerous when they close a sidewalk on one side of the street,” Rose said in an interview over the weekend. “It’s nearly impossible for me to cross the street to get to the other side.”

closed sidewalks gravel

A developer actually has built a covered walkway for pedestrians, but gravel on the ground makes it inaccessible to people with disabilities

Rose moved to Midtown in 2010 because it was one of the most pedestrian-friendly areas in Atlanta. He lived above a grocery store, and diagonally across from a MARTA station.

“I really don’t think the City of Atlanta understands accessibility,” Rose said. “It is a safety issue, first and foremost. That is the point I hope you can drive home.”

When handing out permits to close sidewalks, city officials have assumed that it’s okay as long as there’s a sidewalk on the other side of the street.

But Sally Flocks, founder, president and CEO of PEDS – a pedestrian advocacy organization, said that people on foot prefer to take the shortest paths.

“Most people will walk in the street, even with their back to traffic, rather than cross the street,” Flocks said., adding that the city could do more. “They are doing the easiest thing for developers rather than making sure they’re doing the right thing for pedestrians.”

closed sidewalk wheelchair

A woman in a wheelchair rolls in the middle of the street near MARTA’s Midtown Station because the sidewalk is closed (Photo by Dan Molino)

Flocks and several readers made two points repeatedly. If a developer absolutely needs every inch of their site plus the sidewalk, then many of Atlanta’s streets are so wide or have so many lanes that a pedestrian path with a barrier would not cause a hardship.

“If Midtown desires to be the great urban walkable part of Atlanta, it must tame its streets through road diets,” said Lee Pollock, a planner for Jacobs firm. “For me, the most glaring street is 11th and Crescent. Eleventh Street is massive, and the contractor has taken roughly one lane and a parallel parking space. Even with all of this pavement ‘taken’ there would be room for two lanes and parallel parking on both sides from my rough estimation.”

Another point that people made repeatedly is that other cities have figured out how to keep sidewalks open during construction.

Rose, 63, has lived in and traveled to major cities in the United States and around the world.

Earlier this summer, he traveled to Berlin, Germany. “They had construction all over,” Rose said. “There they are required to put up scaffolding. They do not close sidewalks in Berlin.”

The same is true in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Detroit and just about every other major city in the country, Rose and other readers said.

Richard Mendoza, Atlanta’s commissioner of Public Works, said in a statement: “We make every effort to maintain sidewalk access unless there exists potential risks to public safety due to construction activity, in which case we require ADA compliant detours be provided by the developers.”

Rose, however, disputed that. When asked about the city being ADA accessible, Rose said: “That’s a real joke.”

As an example, all we had to do was go across the street from his high rise to see a covered pedestrian walkway filled with gravel – making it impossible to use for someone in a wheelchair or for Rose, who has trouble walking on uneven ground.

Emory proton center closed sidewalk

A nicely painted crosswalk leads pedestrians to Emory’s Proton Center’s closed sidewalk. Construction has stopped by sidewalk remains closed

While the City of Atlanta has laws on the books, Flocks questioned whether they were being enforced. Does the city monitor when 90-day permits have expired? Is there any real enforcement of the rules? And have so many exceptions been given that there really is no appreciation to the stated city policy that sidewalks should remain open?

One blatant example is Emory’s Proton Therapy Center being built along Juniper Street between Ponce de Leon Avenue and North Avenue. Work has been stopped on that project because it has run out of funds, but the sidewalk remains closed. There is a large stretch of land where people could walk if the barrier were to be moved closer to the building. Again, no construction is taking place, but the sidewalk is still closed.

An easy way to fix that problem would be to charge developers a significant fee for every sidewalk that is closed. The longer a sidewalk was closed, the higher the fees would be. Developers then would be more motivated to keep sidewalks open or provide pedestrian access.

closed sidewalk Emory

Construction work has stopped on Emory’s Proton Center, but the sidewalk remains closed despite ample space for pedestrians inside the barricades

Again, a base fee could be charged the first month, but that fee could double each month that sidewalks remain closed. If the base fee were $100 a day for regular streets and $200 a day for major streets (and those would double after 30 days), and if the city enforced that policy, then we would be able to make a difference.

“Any kind of disincentive to close sidewalks would be welcome, including financial disincentives,” Rose said. “I see people walking on Peachtree Place on the street all the time because the sidewalk is closed.”

As if on cue – right after our interview, a woman in a wheelchair rolled along the middle of Peachtree Place because the sidewalk was closed.

“You wouldn’t see that situation in Chicago, New York or Boston,” Rose said. “Why do we have all these exceptions? Why are we different? We pretend to be a big metropolitan city….”

Rose, who speaks with difficulty, didn’t need to finish his sentence.

We pretend to be a big city, but we still don’t act like one.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

16 replies
  1. jamstan says:

    Developers have to play ball and elected officials have to stop kowtowing to them for the sake of unbridled economic development. I moved here to GA from Arizona where developers must make their contribution to the infrastructure (sidewalks, schools, roads, medians, landscape, parks, etc) for the privilege of building and profiting from a new development. This is not socialism. It is evolved urban planning with a vision. Such a paradigm shift will ensure that the public sector isn’t constantly struggling to keep up with the profit-driven private sector that is so often lining the pockets of our elected officials along the way. Examples are everywhere you look. We are in so deep that the fix is neither cheap, easy nor quick, but it starts with articles like this. Thanks Maria Saporta.Report

    Reply
  2. gwwrocks says:

    jamstan Developers in Atlanta do make a contribution to the infrastructure through the impact fees they are required to pay in order to receive their permits.  What is interesting however, is the city is not required to use the revenue received from impact fees in the area where they development is occurring.  City officials may elect to use as much of the revenue as they want in other parts of the city.  This is where much can be called to question…Report

    Reply
  3. Dan says:

    The city government has no respect for people on sidewalks. Not only are they allowing developers to close sidewalks for the duration of the construction project, but police officers constantly park on sidewalks in their personal vehicles because they feel they are above the law and should not pay to park when going to work. Same goes for MARTA employees around stations. Every day at the north end of the North Ave MARTA station bus bay exit, there are vehicles parked on the sidewalk. One car that is consistently there is a blue Audi that belongs to a police officer. I believe he works as security at the Fox Theatre. There have been countless times where I have exited the station and the sidewalk was completely blocked by illegally parked cars. Sure I’m able to squeeze by due to me being an able body person that can walk, but I see others with disabilities who are forced to use the street and risk getting hit by a car. One day I saw Park Atlanta ticketing cars on the other side of the street and mentioned that he should ticket each of the cars on the sidewalk and he said he would not do it because they belong to police officers. This is beyond ridiculous that police officers feel they are above the law and put citizens at risk by blocking sidewalks. Same goes for city officials allowing developers to block sidewalks for several months, sometimes over a year, at a time. Please do something about this.Report

    Reply
  4. Wormser Hats says:

    Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

    Mr. Mendoza’s Public Works Department not only fails to serve the public interest in safe, passable sidewalks that front on revenue-generating developments, but has the audacity to impugn private homeowners with the city’s burden to maintain sidewalks in the city’s right-of-way, can’t seem to manage to keep the city’s lights burning on our interstates at night, and the list goes on. 
    I give him a golden snow-shovel award!Report

    Reply
  5. Dan Molino says:

    Thank you Maria for continuing to
    bring attention to construction obstruction on our sidewalks.  I live at
    the 11th and Crescent development mentioned in your article and have been very
    vocal about the situation at my front door.  I can personally attest to
    the carelessness which Brassfield and Gorrie, the construction company at this site
    and at least two other Midtown projects, disregards the public safety.  Further, I can tell you that our Public Works
    department has not provided enough oversight to prevent Brassfield from causing
    problems to my street.  However, they
    have not been un-responsive either.  At
    the 11th street site, Commissioner Mendoza and his people have
    forced action in removing blue awnings from Brassfield’s barriers to increase
    visibility at the crosswalk, provide access to the fire hydrant and restrain
    the barrier from falling into the public right of way.  Obviously, were these barriers that close the
    sidewalk not here in the first place, these problems wouldn’t need solving by
    the Commissioner.  He is trying and I see
    progress, just not as fast or as much as we deserve from our civil servants.  If we had more vocal people pointing out to
    our government the impact of construction obstruction problems as they occur,
    perhaps we could annoy the Commissioner.  Perhaps we could annoy him so much that he would choose to correct the problem
    once at the beginning of construction during permitting, rather than dispatching
    inspectors to address whatever violation Brassfield thinks they can get away
    with that day.  That’s why I publish
    Commissioner Mendoza’s email and Gregory Pace of the building department.  Flood their offices with construction obstruction
    complaints so that the path of least resistance is the developer, not the citizens. 
    and .  Call
    311, to report the problems to public works as they occur and get an order number
    to track their resolution. Call the
    right people.  For example, the “DAN”
    that commented below about Park Atlanta not ticketing illegally parked cars on
    the sidewalk took action but not enough.  Park Atlanta does meters and nothing more.  Until we get the system better, if Park
    Atlanta won’t dispatch APD to solve the problem, then call 911 and have an APD officer
    dispatched yourself.  That is a way more
    effective solution than commenting on Maria’s very well written article.

    Also,
    the inspectors for public works do not have training in ADA.  Had our inspectors been trained in ADA,
    perhaps the gravel situation that Maria so rightfully points out would not have
    been allowed to exist.  Mayor Reed has
    refused to fund public works properly so that these inspectors can be
    retrained.  Complain to Mayor Reed at .  Support Cathy Woolard in her efforts to fix Mayor
    Reed’s funding failures in her mayoral campaign.  Work with council people that have proven
    their worth in sidewalks safety such as at-large member Mary Norwood, . Ignore
    the re-election efforts of council people that know about these problems but don’t support our sidewalk efforts such as
    Kwanza Hall, and
    Alex Wan, .Report

    Reply
  6. Susan Roe says:

    I walked up Boulevard today from the Path to the dog park by Freedom Parkway…sidewalks on both sides of this very busy street were closed. Naturally, the signage on one side of the street wasn’t until half way up the block.
    Walton street also had closures on both sides this week downtown.
    Prior planning prevents…..Report

    Reply
  7. Todd Skelton says:

    “We make every effort to maintain sidewalk access unless there exists potential risks to public safety due to construction activity, in which case we require ADA compliant detours be provided by the developers.”
    No, Mr. Mendoza, you don’t make every effort. Not even close.Report

    Reply
  8. jtuckeratlanta says:

    You go to Chicago and you do not see this problem.  They always seem to have built a temporary covered sidewalk so that pedestrian traffic is not impeded.  Maybe this should become a building code to where this is required by the owners of the property or a responsibility of the general contractor.Report

    Reply
  9. Dan Molino says:

    jtuckeratlanta  Perhaps you missed Maria’s previous article on construction obstruction from last week.  Atlanta actually has laws on our books for the developers to create covered sidewalks and for the developer to pay for them.  The Commissioner of Public Works chooses not to enforce them but instead exercises his option to declare closing the sidewalk a safer option for the public than allowing a covered walkway. Hence you see the outrage that we have directed at that department and hence the quote from Mr. Mendoza in this article.  I encourage you in addition to commenting on Maria’s article to send your thoughts to the Commissioner of Public Works at .  The more people like you that say that our current methods are unacceptable the more likely we are to get change.Report

    Reply
  10. Dan Molino says:

    No ADA compliant detour exists for the construction at the corner of 14th and W. Peachtree.  If someone can actually cross the four lanes of W. Peachtree at 13th St. without a crosswalk in between traffic lights, they will find a tree that has roots that disrupt the sidewalk and make it impassable for any but the able bodied.  This response from Commissioner Mendoza is what he would like to see happen, not what happens in reality.  Since I have yet to meet a public works inspector who is trained in ADA, how can they possibly identify an ADA compliant detour? They missed it in this instance.  The building department run by Mr. Gregory Pace also misses ADA compliance inside buildings.  My parking garage at 1010 Midtown is the perfect example of his failure and refusal to correct his mistake when it is identified.  And detours for those with walking challenges is acceptable?  Really?  I would like Mr. Mendoza to take one of the current circuitous detours at 14th street in a wheelchair and see if he finds that acceptable and safe for the public.Report

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?