For first time, Milwaukie sidewalks get priority from officials
This story has been updated from its original version.
Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba is proud that the City Council is working out the details of a financing plan to construct sidewalks on nearly half the streets in the city.
Like many citizens, Gamba has been frustrated at how slowly the city has expanded its sidewalk network. Prior to adoption of Safe Access for Everyone (SAFE) in 2016, the city administered an average of $3.8 million annually in capital projects. With a cost of about $100,000 per block face to build a sidewalk, Milwaukie hadn't built a sidewalk without grant funding for decades.
In November 2016, city councilors adopted a utility fee to bring in nearly an additional $1 million a year to fund the Bicycle and Pedestrian Accessibility Program.
Two projects are starting this year near elementary schools in Milwaukie, but the projects aren't happening quickly enough for the mayor. A project around Ardenwald Elementary will fill in sidewalk gaps along Southeast Wake Street and 39th Avenue, replacing curb ramps that do not meet current ADA standards. Another current project near Milwaukie Elementary will fill in sidewalk gaps on both sides of Sellwood Street, 30th Avenue and Madison Street.
At the direction of Gamba and the rest of the City Council, officials have developed a plan to accelerate the number of sidewalks constructed by selling bonds to be paid off by the utility fee. On Jan. 9, city councilors agreed in principle to a nine-year work plan.
"Let's get the work done early so people can walk on those sidewalks for the next 20 years, rather than hope to live for another 20 years for the sidewalks to be built," Gamba said. "City councilors have been talking about building more sidewalks for 70 years, but we're actually going to do it."
Gamba hopes the City Council will officially approve the work plan on Feb. 6, at the regular council meeting after he gives his State of the City speech at 5 p.m. Over the next nine years, city officials would like to construct sidewalks on about 45 percent of the city's streets. That's approximately 44.5 miles of sidewalks, 8 miles of paths and trails and 7 miles of bike lanes.
If the recommended accelerated approach is approved, the city's annual budget for projects will more than double. City officials estimate spending $37.2 million over the next three years, with a total of $80.8 million over the proposed nine-year program. Milwaukie officials also plan to apply for matching-grant funding to extend the projects over a wider area.
Proposed construction would require three separate bond sales every three years for nine years, with the first three-year bond estimated at $17.4 million. Gamba expects that the first of three bonds would fund construction of sidewalks around Kronberg Park, Ardenwald Elementary and Linwood Elementary.
Gamba acknowledged that nothing about the construction will be easy, and an accelerated approach will strain city staffing, even with some of the projects contracted out to private construction firms. In addition, generations of homeowners have built fences and gardens in their front yards, edging into the city's right-of-way for sidewalks. The homeowners will have to give up claim to land they've come to think of as their own.
"It's going to be a headache for nine years, but in the end it's going to be a much better, safer city," Gamba said.
How did Milwaukie go from complaining about sidewalks for decades to coming up with a financing plan? Gamba was elected as a member of the City Council starting in 2012, when Jeremy Ferguson was mayor. Ferguson wasn't opposed to Gamba's push for more sidewalks, but Gamba's advocacy wasn't getting traction among the other city councilors.
During 2013 and 2014, Gamba spoke to members of local parent-teacher organizations to tell them that they'd need to help him work for political change on the City Council if they'd like to see more sidewalks built.
"Doing hard, necessary, important things is really not that hard as long as you embolden average people to think that the power is in their hands to make a difference," Gamba said.
"It's pretty amazing what can happen when you let people know that this good thing is something that they have the power to make happen."
Lisa Batey and Karin Power, who were elected to the City Council in 2014, joined Gamba during the winter of 2013-14 in kicking off the Safe Routes to School program at Linwood Elementary, and they hoped to extend the campaign to all schools in Milwaukie to find ways to fund sidewalk projects around schools.
Gamba ran unopposed for the mayoral position in May 2015 after Ferguson resigned abruptly in January 2015. Since his election as mayor, Gamba's been asked to run for a seat on the Clackamas County Commission, Metro Council and U.S. Congress.
U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader can rest easy about his Democratic nomination for re-election, Gamba said. In what would be his first full mayoral term if he wins the election, Gamba plans to run for re-election as Milwaukie mayor this year. The former National Geographic photographer said he never intended to become a politician.
"I'd do a lot better working for McDonald's, and it'd be a whole lot less stressful," Gamba said.
Gamba said he won't run for a third term in 2022 because he will have run out of savings by then.
"I'm working 50 hours a week as mayor and only getting paid $270 a month, so I can't afford to be mayor for 11 years," he said.
In the meantime, Gamba has supported other local politicians — helping elect Jim Bernard as Clackamas County chairman and County Commissioner Ken Humberston in unseating John Ludlow and Tootie Smith.
Gamba would next like to help unseat state Sen. Rod Monroe, who is being challenged in the Democratic primary for his district that extends into parts of Happy Valley, Milwaukie and unincorporated Clackamas. Former state Rep. Shemia Fagan was recruited by housing advocates to try to unseat Monroe, who is blamed for scuttling a tenant protections bill earlier this year.
Monroe, who represents Senate District 24, opposed House Bill 2004 because he said the legislation's provisions to allow rent control and to ban no-cause evictions would exacerbate the affordable housing shortage. The Portland Democrat, who is a landlord of a multifamily apartment complex, continued to oppose the bill even after a Senate committee removed the provision to allow local jurisdictions to enact rent control.
Gamba agrees with Fagan that the housing shortage has become a crisis requiring solutions that don't just involve more subsidized low- and middle-income housing.
"Rod Monroe is a nice man who also happens to be a landlord, and on housing issues he's been making selfish choices," Gamba said. "Shemia's tough, and she's a fighter who should be able to shake things up."
Gamba said that Monroe's other primary opponent, Unite Oregon Executive Director Kayse Jama, doesn't have the political experience to give him "any idea how hard it is to unseat an incumbent."
Gamba believes Fagan understands this, along with Charles Gallia, a policy adviser for Oregon Health Authority whom Gamba is supporting in a quest to unseat state Sen. Alan Olsen. If both Fagan and Gallia win, rent control will become politically feasible.
"With that shift in the Oregon Senate, the Senate's a whole new ballgame," Gamba said.
This story has been updated from its original version online to reflect the correct number for House Bill 2004, which sought to allow rent control and to ban no-cause evictions.