Broken Street, Broken Promises: Neighbors say city hasn't delivered on crumbling Lombard Street 

"This could be a lovely street. I just want the city to be a good neighbor."

click to enlarge In 2009 the city promised to fix up crumbling Lombard Street in the Hill District. Residents say little, if anything, was done. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • In 2009 the city promised to fix up crumbling Lombard Street in the Hill District. Residents say little, if anything, was done.

Joanne Dunn remembers taking Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on a tour of Lombard Street back in the spring of 2009. Dunn, along with other residents of Lombard, says she showed the mayor and Public Works employees the deplorable conditions on the winding Hill District side street: crumbling, weed-infested sidewalks and steps; badly damaged fencing along the edge of a steep hillside; overgrown vacant lots.


"[Ravenstahl] couldn't even walk up the sidewalks" because they were in such poor condition, says Dunn, 63, a Lombard Street resident since 1989. Like residents themselves, "He had to walk in the street.

"The mayor said, ‘I'm going to make sure all of this is handled,'" she recalls, adding that his promises included repairing sidewalks and fixing the fence. "He said he was going to make some changes."

But more than two years later, Dunn and other Lombard residents say that too much remains unchanged. 

The city has made improvements along Lombard, including demolishing some vacant homes and cleaning up trash. But residents contend that many of the street's problems persist. And they're taking their complaints back to the mayor.

"Walking through Lombard Street with you on Friday, April 17, 2009, we had real hope that the blighted conditions you witnessed would be corrected," reads a signed letter from The Lombard Street Community, which was sent to the mayor's office on Aug. 10. "WE CRY OUT that you please correct these conditions immediately. This blight has gone on far too long."


Lombard Street shares the name and curves of the famously twisting street in San Francisco, but that's where the similarities end. Tucked between Dinwiddie Street and Bentley Drive, Lombard is home to just about as many vacant lots as houses. Some of those lots belong to the city, while others are privately owned.

But the street's problems are easy to pinpoint. 

Chief among Willie Shelton's concerns is the fencing that stretches along one side of Lombard, along the edge of a steep cliff with about a 10-foot drop. As the 54-year-old resident points out, much of the fence is already tilted badly. Other portions are missing completely.

"It's just a hazard," says Shelton, who worries children could fall off the side of the hill. "We were supposed to get the fence fixed."

Then there are the sidewalks. 

If the hillside fence is crumbling, much of the sidewalk running alongside it is practically invisible. It's so crumbled and overgrown with grass, Dunn says, pedestrians can't even use it. 

On a typical side street, stepping out onto the street itself might not be so bad. But residents point out that Lombard receives heavy traffic from vehicles; many drivers use it as a shortcut to travel from Dinwiddie to Bentley, cutting through a small alley called Nigh Way. "It's like the parkway," says Dunn. "I used to drive up [Lombard] and pick up people" so that they wouldn't get hit by a car.

"This could be a lovely street," says Geneva Jackson, who lives near the top of Lombard. "I just want the city to be a good neighbor."

In addition to fixing the fence and sidewalks, Jackson says the city needs to repair a small staircase located near the end of Lombard Street. The badly damaged, weed-infested stairs, which lead to a dirt path, are frequently used by pedestrians heading toward Bentley Drive. 

During an Aug. 12 meeting of the Hill District Consensus Group, Jackson announced that Lombard residents were demanding the city address the street's problems. 

"I'm here today to repeat our request that the necessary funds be allocated and expended to replace city-owned fences and bring up to code sidewalks, curbs … and correct the blight that is so apparent on Lombard Street," she said. "The need to correct the blight … is urgent."


But the job of fixing Lombard, city officials say, isn't solely the city's responsibility. 

Rob Kaczorowski, director of the city's Department of Public Works, remembers touring Lombard Street as the department's deputy director back in 2009. And he says the city delivered on its pledge to make improvements. 

"Everything was pretty much taken care of," Kaczorowski says, noting that some vacant homes on the street were demolished. "We blitzed that area … and moved tons of debris.

"The mayor said, ‘Do it,' and we did it," he adds. "It was a pretty major clean sweep."

Cleaning up garbage and debris is one thing, however: "Sidewalks are another story," says Kaczorowski. "You can't fix sidewalks that aren't city-owned."

Because Lombard is a mix of city-owned and privately owned property, he says it would be very difficult to commit to sidewalk-repair projects. The city's chronically tight budget doesn't help either.

"It's hard with the budget," says Kaczorowski, "especially with a hodgepodge of private property" interspersed with city-owned lots. 

As for the broken steps, Kaczorowski says he believes those too are on private property, part of a staircase that once led from a now-demolished home to the street. "This lot being private," he says, "it isn't the responsibility of the city." 

Still, Kaczorowski says he plans to look into residents' concerns about the fence. "We'll take a look at the wall the fence is built on, and make sure it's secure and safe."

Harry Johnson, a legislative aide to City Councilor Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill District, says the councilor's office just recently received a copy of the letter residents sent to the mayor. Once city council's summer recess ends in September, he says, Lavelle "will be meeting with residents."

click to enlarge Joanne Dunn says the city needs to do better for the street's residents. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL

By then, residents hope, it won't be much longer until their pleas for help will finally be answered. After all, they say, other parts of the Hill District have seen significant attention, with construction sites popping up all over the neighborhood -- including along Dinwiddie Street itself, just below Lombard.

"They're doing all of these projects around us," Shelton says, "but we're just left in the middle."

"Everything's blooming around us," adds Dunn, "but we're just a little thorn."



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