“Sidewalks are public domain and should be maintained by the government,” said Adam Tischer, vice president at Colliers International’s downtown L.A. office.

While that has been the way sidewalk repair has operated for the last four decades, it was not always so – and it is not that way elsewhere in California.

In the rest of the state, property owners are responsible for repairing sidewalks, in accordance with the California Streets and Highways Code. But in the 1970s, city of L.A. leaders decided to pay for the sidewalk damage caused by trees, a decision lubricated by a multimillion-dollar federal grant to fund the work.

But the federal funding dried up within a few years, and repairs have “not always been consistently funded due to funding constraints” ever since, Santana’s report says. In fact, from 1978 to 2000, the city did not have a full-scale sidewalk repair program. Even when a program was in place, there was stalling. While waiting for the settlement agreement in the Willits case to close, the city halted the sidewalk repair process almost entirely.

Funding city repairs through a tax increase is likely to face resistance as well: L.A. voters have on several occasions rejected ballot measures for sales tax increases that would fund such work.

Unfair treatment

All of which leaves the city in a bind.

In addition to shifting the burden for repairs to property owners, the Santana report proposed treating commercial and residential property owners differently. The report, released May 26, outlined a fix-and-release strategy in which sidewalks in residential areas that are damaged by trees would be fixed first by the city. After that initial city repair, any future damage would be the responsibility of the residential property owner.

Ruben Gonzalez, senior vice president for public policy and political affairs at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said the report is not acceptable in its treatment of commercial property owners.

“At a minimum, we believe that commercial property owners and residential property owners should be treated equally,” Gonzalez said. “Requiring a greater burden on commercial property owners is simply unfair.”

David Simon, executive vice president at West L.A. firm Kilroy Realty Corp., which developed and owns five large office properties within city limits and has two under development, questioned whether the proposed changes could end up making property owners liable for accidents that happen on the sidewalk on their property.

“If you are transferring the cost to property owners, are you transferring the liability, too?” he asked. “Does a landlord now need more insurance, and if someone trips and falls, is it now that landlord’s responsibility?”

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