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East County neighborhoods work to fill-in, repair pedestrian infrastructure throughout community

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - Gresham crews pour a concrete sidewalk. More than a year ago tragedy struck Gresham as two boys were hit and killed along a dangerous stretch of roadway for pedestrians.

Both deaths occurred on Southeast Hogan Road. In late 2019, 17-year-old Jayden Auberry was struck by a driver while riding his bicycle. One month later, as students were headed back from winter break, 11-year-old Luis Medina was hit while crossing in a marked intersection at Hogan and Fifth.

Medina was killed near a stretch of roadway that is a popular route for students to walk to Dexter McCarty Middle School, many living in nearby developments. All along Hogan the sidewalk coverage is spotty, often forcing students to stroll along the 35 mile-per-hour road on a muddy shoulder.

"After that tragedy we did some field review and were surprised to learn how many were walking to school along that route," said Chris Strong, Gresham transportation division manager.

In the wake of the two deaths, the Historic Southeast and Hogan Cedars Neighborhood Associations worked together to implement safety measures with city support.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Matt Callison worked to get safety improvements along Hogan after a student was hit and killed while walking to school. "The city listened and acted on our concerns," said Matt Callison, Hogan Cedars president. "With the amount of building and new homes coming to our neighborhood, we knew the issues would continue to get worse."

In the immediate aftermath a pair of flashing school zone boards were installed to caution drivers. The city of Gresham also put in a temporary asphalt path where Medina was hit — a stopgap forced by lack of funds to install a proper sidewalk.

That path runs between Sixth and Ninth streets — past the white cross memorial for Medina. It cost the city approximately $100,000, and a bit of work still needs to be finished including a safety railing near a ditch, striping and landscaping.

For Callison, getting those safety measures in place, no matter how temporary, were paramount because his son went to school with Medina and loves to ride his bike.

"Almost every day I remind my son two things — wear a helmet and watch for cars," Callison said.

This wasn't the first time tragedy spurred change at Hogan and Fifth — the light at the intersection was installed after a student was struck by a driver.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - The memorial for 11-year-old Luis Medina.  "Very often it takes an accident to be the impetus to get something done," said Carol Rulla, president of the Coalition of Gresham Neighborhood Associations.

While much of the spotlight has recently been on Hogan, missing sidewalks is an issue for all of Gresham. Across the community, roadways feature a patchwork of pedestrian infrastructure, forcing residents to court danger every time they choose to walk to school, work, or for an afternoon out in the sun.

And while the solution seems simple — pour concrete — city leaders said its more complicated, and expensive.

"These streets we are working on were built in the 1950s and 60s without current standards," Strong said.

To install a sidewalk the city has to account for utilities being impacted and align the work with future changes to the road. Often it also requires securing right-of-way, eating portions of resident's yards as properties sit close to the streets. Officials also have to ensure everything is Americans with Disabilities Act accessible.

That means installing a sidewalk often costs millions, a dauting price tag for a city struggling with budget issues. That stretch of Hogan with the asphalt path would cost Gresham north of $10 million for a sidewalk because the road would have to be widened.

"Unless there is some larger funding pool or grant, it is difficult to move forward," Strong said.

Patchwork problem

COURTESY PHOTO: SUSAN AINSWORTH SMITH - Pedestrians across Gresham struggle with a lack of sidewalks. Susan Ainsworth Smith and her husband are neighborhood walkers, and the couple have many times witnessed near misses between speeding drivers and pedestrians.

Smith lives near Southeast Powell Valley Road and is the land use chair for the Powell Valley Neighborhood, and described the sidewalk situation as "patchwork."

"It is hard to get from one area to the next without making your way onto Powell Valley Road," Smith said. "It's too fast of a road without enough sidewalks."

Nearby her home are two schools — Gordon Russel Middle School and Powell Valley Elementary — as well as Regency Gresham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Many afternoons the resident of the care facility like to get out for some fresh air. But they are often in motorized scooters or wheelchairs, leading to a crowded roadway.

"One day I was out walking and someone in a motorized scooter was crossing Kelly Creek across the bridge," Smith said. "Cars were speeding past."

About four years ago the neighborhood attempted to get more sidewalks constructed on Powell Valley Road, especially with more development happening. COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - Chris StrongThe city attempted to secure a grant application for funding through Safe Routes to School for sidewalks near Powell Valley Elementary in late 2018, but were unsuccessful. Officials said they are continuing to seek funding.

"It would be nice to see some movement on that," Smith said.

The lack of sidewalks is an issue in every part of Gresham, and one that the Coalition of Gresham Neighborhood Associations is working to address.

"In some neighborhoods you can't walk in the streets safely," Rulla said. "Sidewalks have been a constant issue in Gresham."

There are two main issues when it comes to sidewalks — infill to address gaps in the pedestrian coverage, and repairs to outdated/dangerous sidewalks.

Fixing and maintaining sidewalks is a complaint-based system that can be unfair to residents without the financial ability to pay for the work. It often falls upon a neighbor reporting someone's sidewalks, and then the homeowner being responsible for fixing them.

And none of these concerns are new. A decade ago community members complained about the walking situation near Southeast First Street and Northeast Kane Drive. Many were living on apartments on Kane and would walk along the road to get to WinCo or Fred Meyer.

Like the recent addition to Hogan, the city put in an asphalt path as a temporary measure. There is still no sidewalk on that road 10 years later.

"Missing sidewalks are a problem for many people — kids, adults out on walks, parents pushing kids in strollers, people in wheelchairs," Rulla said.

Safer streets

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - The expenses around putting in new sidewalks can make it difficult to complete needed infill.  In the Northwest Neighborhood, the lack of sidewalks is most felt along Division, especially with fancy new rapid buses that will come online sometime in 2022 through the Division Transit Project.

That new bus line includes bolstered stations along Division, and the development will include sidewalks at the stops. But the lack of pedestrian options extends past those places, and anyone utilizing the buses will have trouble navigating more than a few blocks from the stations.

"Where the stops are will force people to walk through neighborhood streets without sidewalks," said John Bildsoe, Coalition of Neighborhoods co-vice president. "And there are sections on Division where cars are right next to you with a sloped, dirt track."

The city is already eyeing sidewalk infill on Division, as leaders have been trying to focus on major arterial roadways. Gresham secured grant funding to complete/add sidewalks on both sides of Division between Wallula and Birdsdale. Construction should begin in 2023.

It seems residents are feeling the lack of sidewalks now more than ever after a pandemic year in which walking was one of the only available forms of entertainment. Many Neighborhood Association leaders confirm that more people are out and about — especially children.

"We know that people want to be out and about with a neighborhood that is easy to walk in," said Jay Higgins, Gresham transportation planner who has been helming engagement around active transportation. "Many of the arterials in Gresham don't feel super safe right now with not enough crossings or sidewalks."

There is a process for securing sidewalks in Gresham — or at least getting problem-areas on the city's radar. Officials process requests and complaints from citizens, and then evaluate need based on criteria including proximity to parks and schools. Every stretch of road lacking a sidewalk receives a score that then grants priority when the city receives funds.

"We are glad to receive the requests for sidewalks, they are born of people wanting to get out and walk," Strong said. "If we have the resources we tend to focus on the highest traffic roads first."

Sidewalk infill will be an ongoing project in Gresham, and hopefully future movement won't always be spurred by tragedy.

"It would be nice to have safer streets," Smith said.

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