By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A month after a pregnant woman fell through a downtown Havre sidewalk, some city officials say the city will need to take a greater role in ensuring that businesses maintain vaulted sidewalks.
Some local property owners with storage space beneath the sidewalk say their sidewalks are safe, but that they have not been inspected by an engineer to ensure they are structurally sound.
"If you've got a vaulted area and you don't even check it out after the last incident, you're kind of negligent," said Gary Schubert, chair of the Havre City Council's Streets and Sidewalks Committee.
Havre public works director Dave Peterson said he will probably look at the vaulted sidewalks and refer property owners to a structural engineer.
On July 2, Havre resident Stacy Keller fell through a section of sidewalk covering an 8-foot-deep coal chute on the west side of Fourth Avenue between Second and Third streets. The sidewalk was embedded with a 4-by-3-foot grid of circular glass skylights.
The city put braces underneath the segment Keller fell through and the three other similar chutes in that block, and in July the city approved spending about $50,000 in federal gas tax money to fill in the chutes with gravel and replace the sidewalk.
Many downtown businesses probably have vaulted sidewalks, said Frank DeRosa, the chair of Havre Beneath the Streets, an underground tourist attraction in downtown Havre that has exhibits below vaulted sidewalks.
"I'll bet you a dollar for a doughnut that wherever you see a wide sidewalk there's a vaulted sidewalk," DeRosa said, adding that some have been filled in over the years.
Just because there's a vaulted sidewalk doesn't mean it's dangerous, he said. Unlike the coal chute Keller fell into, regular vaulted sidewalks have 5- or 6-inch-thick concrete and are reinforced by steel I-beams, he said.
Even so, Schubert said he thinks the city has a responsibility to get involved.
"If the city lets it go ... they're just as at fault as the business owners, my feelings are," he said.
Last month after the accident, Dave Peterson said the city has not inspected vaulted sidewalks in the past because by law, property owners are responsible for them.
"We don't go in and inspect them because they're part of the buildings," Peterson said. "We will probably talk to the property owners and get down in there and take a look."
He added that the city will probably refer the business owners to a structural engineer as well.
Schubert said he thinks the businesses should pay for the engineer's inspections.
"It's theirs to maintain," he said.
On Tuesday Peterson said he has not done any inspections because he is still waiting to hear from City Attorney Jim Kaze and the city's insurance company, the Montana Municipal Insurance Association, to find out what the city should do about the sidewalks.
"We're just waiting to see what their opinion is to see how we need to proceed with everything," he said.
Kaze and MMIA deputy CEO Alan Hulse did not return calls asking for comment.
Part of the problem, Peterson said, is he doesn't know which vaulted sidewalks have been filled, which are empty, and which are still used. Some, like the vaulted sidewalks around the Atrium, are not a risk because they have already been filled or replaced, he said.
Peterson said the only other vaulted sidewalks he is aware of, aside from the ones used by Havre Beneath the Streets, are outside Quality Appliances Inc. and Barkus Home Center on Second Street, and Flynn Realty Inc. on Third Avenue. Those, he said, have probably also been reinforced because the businesses still use them for storage.
"Anybody that's utilizing theirs has probably done work" to reinforce the sidewalk, he said.
Gary Muskewitz, owner of Quality Appliances Inc., said he uses his vaulted sidewalk to store old appliances.
Muskewitz said his vaulted sidewalk is not like the coal chute that collapsed beneath Keller.
Those chutes are square holes with removable iron-rimmed covers that allowed trucks to load coal directly into a business' basement. The space beneath a vaulted sidewalk, by contrast, is an extension of the building's basement and runs along the entire length of the sidewalk. The passageways are covered with a concrete sidewalk that is reinforced with steel I-beams and iron rebar.
Muskewitz said he has not done any reinforcing to the sidewalk, but that the Fire Department inspects the whole building.
"It's good and sound," he said.
Assistant Fire Chief Tim Ranes said the fire safety inspections the Fire Department performs every year do not examine structural integrity of buildings or sidewalks. They are not looking for building code violations, he said.
"We look more for fire safety code violations," Ranes said. Building code violations would be Peterson's area, he said.
Paul Kuka, a Realtor with Flynn Realty, said the business does not use its vaulted sidewalk. He said the passage used to go all the way down to the corner, but that the passage is now blocked between Flynn and Barkus Home Center.
Murray Barkus, owner of Barkus Home Center, said his company does not use the space under the sidewalk. He said he has not done anything to reinforce the sidewalk, adding that it has steel beams holding up the concrete.
Barkus said he does not think the sidewalk is a safety risk.
"Unless you drove a big truck up there," it is safe, he said, adding that there have been large Bobcats on the sidewalk, and that it has never been a problem.
DeRosa said the sections of glass skylights above Havre Beneath the Streets have not been reinforced, but that they are safer than the circular lights Keller fell through because they are mounted in a steel grid.
"They've been there for 100 years," he said, adding that they support the weight of large trucks parked in front of the Eagles Club. "Why put braces all over the thing if you don't need it?"
City Council member Tom Farnham, who manages the Eagles Club, said there have not been any engineering studies examining the structural integrity of the glass skylights in the sidewalk in front of the Eagles, but that he is confident that the glass skylights are safe.
One of the only other places in town that still has glass skylights is just outside the doorway of Pizza Pro on First Avenue. Pizza Pro owner Russ Luke said there is a storage space that extends just past the doorway. He said he uses the space to store paperwork.
Luke said he does not own the building, so he does not know if the space has been inspected or reinforced, but he said he does not have any doubts about the safety of the skylights.
"I only have a 2-foot section," Luke said. "If they stretched out to the street they would be (a safety concern), but mine's only that one little section," Luke said.
Building owner Russ DeVries could not be reached for comment.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said the skylights may not have been the problem in the Keller incident. Rice said that three days before her accident, an extended-cab pickup truck was parked over the section of sidewalk she fell through.
He said the extra weight "absolutely" contributed to the collapse of the sidewalk above the coal chute.
"It was not built to support that kind of weight," Rice said.
Farnham, who is also a member of the Streets and Sidewalks Committee of the City Council, said a city ordinance makes private property owners responsible for maintaining their sidewalks, but that it is very difficult to enforce.
According to the ordinance, the city can hire an engineer to inspect the safety of sidewalks, perform any repairs deemed necessary for their safety, and then charge the property owners.
The law also specifies that if the city does not inspect the sidewalks, that does not absolve the property owners of their duty to keep their sidewalks in "a good and thorough state of repair," or of their liability for failure to do so.
On Monday Rice said he wants to make sure the sidewalks are safe, but he does not support an ordinance requiring property owners to carry out engineering studies to ensure the safety of their vaulted sidewalks.
"We're not in the business of going around telling someone that they need to hire someone to find out if it's unsafe," he said.
He also said he does not support posting signs prohibiting vehicles on the sidewalk.
"You shouldn't have to put up a sign that says don't drive on the sidewalk," he said.
Schubert said he does not think an ordinance will be necessary.
"If we take care of the areas that are in question right now, I don't see the use of an ordinance," he said.
Even without a new ordinance, Streets and Sidewalk Committee member Doug Larson said he thinks the city will have to start making sure property owners inspect their sidewalks.
"I think we have to, and I'm not sure how to do it," he said.
The Montana Department of Transportation had said it would rebuild two sections of vaulted sidewalk as part of its First Street improvement project, but higher-than-expected costs mean MDT may not be able to help after all. Those sections, which leak, run from the corner of First Street and Third Avenue south to the alley, and from the corner of First Street and Second Avenue south to the alley. They are above some of the exhibits of Havre Beneath the Streets.
At a July 17 meeting, Jason Giard, the MDT engineering services supervisor in Great Falls, said cost estimates of replacing the sidewalks are now much more expensive than originally thought.
Rice said the cost may be as much as $600,000.
If the MDT cannot do the project, it may fall to the city to try to find enough money to replace the sidewalk. Rice said he doesn't know what he will do if that happens. The city, he said, doesn't have that kind of money.
If a property owner wants help from the city replacing a vaulted sidewalk, the owner would probably need to submit a proposal for Community Transportation Enhancement Project funds next July, Peterson said.