Farrah Lowe lives down the street from Shepherd Park, but she cannot walk there with her 8-year-old daughter. That’s because she cannot walk at all, with a brain injury having left her confined to an electric wheelchair.
But Lowe, a 43-year-old resident of Shepherd Park Plaza, still wanted to go to the nearby park without having to ride in the street or get in a vehicle. So about a year ago, according to her caregiver, Lowe’s at-home physical therapist made a request to the City of Houston for a wider sidewalk with wheelchair-accessible ramps.
Late last week, that wish was granted. A new sidewalk along Dunsmere Road was installed with ramps at its intersection with Martin Street and Cheshire Lane, allowing Lowe to use the existing sidewalk in front of her home on Cheshire to access the park, which is on the other side of Dunsmere.
“It’s hard for Farrah to get off the sidewalk,” said her caregiver, Fran Murphy. “It’s easier with ramps, and (the city was) agreeable to it. … I’m happy to see it’s been done.”
The project was completed as part of the Houston Public Works Sidewalk Program, which allows residents to request sidewalks for one of three reasons – pedestrian access for people with disabilities, school access for students and to make designated major thoroughfares more walkable – in that order of priority. The city will pave up to 1,500 feet of sidewalk for a Pedestrian Accessibility Review request and up to four blocks apiece for requests related to schools and major thoroughfares.
The new 240-foot sidewalk on Dunsmere is one of five projects in the area that was either recently completed, is in progress or will be executed before the end of the year, according to Houston Public Works. The 1,950 feet of sidewalk being installed on Du Barry Lane between Oak Forest Drive and Ella Boulevard also was in response to a pedestrian accessibility request.
The ongoing sidewalk work on Cheshire between West 43rd Street and Oak Forest Drive originated from a school-related request – adjacent campuses Frank Black Middle School and Oak Forest Elementary are nearby – as did the recent paving of 1,875 feet of sidewalk along Oak Forest Drive between West 34th Street and Lamonte Lane. Scheduled to be installed later this year is 1,475 feet of sidewalk on Lamonte between Oak Forest Drive and Ella.
Shepherd Park Plaza resident Linda Peterson, who recently visited a friend on Cheshire where sidewalk work is ongoing, supports the projects and said the construction is not too much of an inconvenience.
“Children shouldn’t have to play in the street, and old folks shouldn’t have to walk in the street,” she said. “Streets are for cars.”
Not all impacted residents are fond of the sidewalk projects, at least not initially. A school-related request was completed last September on Gardenia Lane between Ella and Rosslyn Road, and multiple Gardenia residents said they received little notification about the work and why it was being done.
The city and its contractors are supposed to give residents at least 72 hours’ notice with paper door hangers, according to Houston Public Works spokesperson Erin Jones. Gardenia resident Sarah Hughes said in September that she got about 12 hours’ notice, and the flyer left by a contractor listed street names that were in other parts of the city.
Another Gardenia resident, Whitney Ferrarese, said the sidewalk work slowed down the construction of her home and destroyed driveway work that had been completed only a few days beforehand. Citing accounts from her neighbors with more tenure on the street, she also said the sidewalk project had a negative impact on drainage as well as vehicular speeding, since motorists see pedestrians and cyclists using the sidewalk instead of the street.
At the same time, Ferrarese said her family, which includes four young children, enjoys using the sidewalk.
“We definitely use it and are glad it’s there,” she said. “I think it was more the execution of it is the biggest factor.”
Jones said sidewalks are “very controversial,” in part because city ordinance requires abutting property owners to maintain them once they are installed. She also said the sidewalk program has an annual budget of $2.6 million and more than $6 million in pending requests, with installation costing the city an average of $75 per foot.
Gabe Cazares, director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, which processes the Pedestrian Accessibility Review requests, said the city typically takes between 18-24 months to build those sidewalks. He also said there has been an uptick in requests since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think the pandemic has contributed to people’s awareness of our walkability and accessibility infrastructure,” Cazares said.
Shepherd Park Plaza resident Mike Jenkins, who used the new sidewalk on Dunsmere while walking to the nearby park last Friday, said it looks “very nice” and he is not opposed to the recent work. But he was curious about the cost and taken aback that it was the result of a request made by one resident and not a group of community members.
According to Cazares, the cost of the one-block project was $30,450. He said the work on Du Barry, which covers a stretch of sidewalk more than eight times as long, cost $159,750.
“I always look at things and juxtapose how much money it costs versus the utility to the public,” Jenkins said. “It’s interesting that one person got all this (on Dunsmere). It’s pretty incredible.”