Sidewalk repair falls through the cracks

Rebeca Oliveira

Courtesy photo The sidewalk above a garden wall on Southbourne Road as it looked this summer, before the removal of the NStar poles.

WOODBOURNE—A Jamaica Plain couple is rebuilding a garden wall on their property that supports a city sidewalk after years of wrangling with the City of Boston and NStar, during which time the wall collapsed.

The two-year saga has included electrical fires, legal action, a petition and criminal citations for the homeowners, Darcy Salinger and Eduardo Valenzuela. The 16-year residents of 66 Bourne St. are now rebuilding the collapsed wall at their own expense.

Salinger and Valenzuela claim the sidewalk adjacent to Southbourne Road was originally damaged by NStar’s poor installation of a pole in 2008, eventually compromising the retaining wall, which sits directly under the sidewalk. They said last week they expect the City to repair the sidewalk as soon as the wall is finished.

Construction for the replacement wall required digging a “massive hole in our yard,” Salinger said. The new wall is one foot thick and ten feet tall, four feet of which are underground, and stretches across Salinger and Valenzuela’s yard as well as their neighbor’s yard.

“We’re going to try to get reimbursed somehow. I believe the City and NStar are both at fault,” Salinger told the Gazette.

“The City and NStar should share responsibility and cost for this situation and not put the full burden on the neighbors, who were the ones who asked the City to repair the sidewalk in the first place, when it was only a crack,” neighbor Harry Smith told the Gazette in an e-mail.

“A thorough review of Ms. Salinger’s claim determined that the collapse was not due to City negligence, but due to the deteriorating conditions of the wall,” Joanne Massaro, commissioner of PWD, wrote in a statement presented to the Gazette by City spokesperson Katie Ward.

In the summer of 2008, NStar installed a temporary pole in the sidewalk on Southbourne Road, next to Salinger and Valenzuela’s property’s backyard. They did not remove the original pole, leaving two poles in the sidewalk. Shortly thereafter, the surrounding sidewalk began to crack, Salinger said.

“I feel something funny went on with that,” Salinger said. “There is no way this work was inspected properly… to this day, neither NStar or [the City’s Public Works Department] PWD has been able to present the permits they should’ve pulled [for installing this pole],” she added.

Salinger said she and Valenzuela contacted a stonemason in the fall of 2008, after noticing that their wall was under stress. Salinger said that the mason told them the sidewalk needed to be fixed first. In November, Salinger and Valenzuela, along with neighbors, asked NStar and PWD to fix the sidewalk, she said. PWD did not respond until April of 2009.

PWD and NStar each blamed the other for the problem, Salinger said. Finally, in the fall of 2009, PWD assigned the sidewalk repair a case number and put it on their repair list, but due to winter setting in, the repairs were not done, Salinger said.

In March of this year, one of the NStar poles caught fire. Boston Fire Department and NStar trucks came out and the fire was extinguished. Two days after the fire, Salinger and Valenzuela’s wall caved in, Salinger said.

“It doesn’t take a structural engineer to know that the crack in the sidewalk allowed water to get in under the sidewalk and cause the wall to collapse,” Smith said.

Mike Durand, a spokesman for NStar, told the Gazette that the company has been “involved in discussions regarding this pole with residents and the City for quite some time,” and that they “continue to work on a possible resolution” for this “ongoing legal matter.” He also said he could not comment further.

“Since March, the City has been aware of and attentive to the collapsed retaining wall and sidewalk on Southbourne Street [sic] and we have worked cooperatively with NStar and Ms. Salinger to resolve the situation,” Massaro said in her statement.

PWD informed Salinger and Valenzuela that they would not repair the sidewalk until the wall was fixed and that it was Salinger and Valenzuela’s responsibility to mend the wall, Salinger said.

This summer, the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) issued a citation against Salinger and Valenzuela for failure to repair their wall since its collapse in March.

Salinger and Valenzuela contacted Colleen Keller, the City’s JP coordinator, for guidance. She told them to ignore the citation, as they were already in contact with PWD, Salinger said.

ISD then converted the citations to a criminal complaint, Salinger said. That complaint was hand-delivered and gave Salinger and Valenzuela 24 hours to comply, instead of the usual 30 days.

“We felt like they [ISD] were trying to push us,” Salinger said.

Other Woodbourne residents presented Mayor Thomas Menino with a petition for action in September, signed by over 30 neighbors.

The owners contacted a lawyer, who drew up an agreement among Salinger, Valenzuela and ISD: while the owners did not admit liability for the sidewalk or fallen wall, they agreed to rebuild the wall, Salinger said. The criminal complaint was downgraded to a civil complaint as part of that agreement.

As Salinger researched the wall repair, an engineer told her that the original wall was not “structurally sound [enough] to support the street,” she said. “We built this wall, and it’s up to the City to repair their sidewalk, which is what they should’ve done two years ago,” she added.

“The City wasn’t ready to help… it’s been a major battle,” Salinger said. “Everything was pulling teeth with them.”

“Regardless of the court case [criminal complaint] filed by ISD against the neighbors, and the resulting discussions among lawyers, the City has a responsibility to repair their sidewalks,” Smith said.

NStar recently removed both old poles and installed a new temporary pole about a block away from the original site. Massaro said that the sidewalk is slated for repair as soon as the wall is finished, hopefully next week.

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