Structural collapse

Potential sidewalk failure in downtown Chico cause for concern

A temporary entryway has been built at the entrance of the downtown deli and bakery.

A temporary entryway has been built at the entrance of the downtown deli and bakery.

Photo By tom gascoyne

The recent discovery of a collapsed structural support beneath a downtown Chico sidewalk throws a spotlight on Chico’s ageing underground infrastructure, and raises the larger question of its safety and long-term structural integrity.

Repair work is on hiatus at the 138 Main St. site occupied by Kona’s Sandwiches and North State Bakery. Both businesses reopened on Friday (Jan. 18) after a two-week closure. During that time temporary support columns were erected beneath the sagging concrete in front of the building, and a footbridge was installed to allow customers safe access. Before a permanent fix can be completed, the question of who is ultimately responsible has to be settled, and that’s a question with no easy answer.

Chris Yarbrough, owner and operator of both the sandwich shop and the bakery, certainly doesn’t have the answer. He said he is just trying to keep his doors open, lamenting the effects of the temporary closure.

“Fourteen days of spending money with nothing coming in, in January? In Chico?” he said. “It’s a bitch.”

A cursory look at historical records shows that most of the buildings downtown date back to the early 1900s. Some were constructed as far back as the 1870s, a time in which the streets would have been dirt, with sidewalks constructed of wooden planks.

Beginning in the early 1900s, a patchwork of asphalt, cement and utility lines was laid down, becoming the pedestrian and traffic grid downtown currently comprises. But what lies underneath that old material and what condition is it in?

It’s tough to figure, said general contractor Richard Billson, who’s been working on the Kona’s project.

“That depends on the building and the property, and who’s been maintaining their basements and basement walls,” he said.

A crumbled pile of bricks underneath Kona’s Sandwiches is part of the original support of the city’s sidewalk.

Photo By melanie mactavish

Over time and various remodels, he explained, including street infill, much of the old basement venting downtown has been covered up.

“I’ve been in some basements where there’s no ventilation at all, and it’s very damp down there. Every person who owns a building downtown should have some sort of ventilation in their basement,” he said. “If it’s not done that way, and if there is excess moisture, that starts deteriorating … the structural integrity of whatever walls are holding up the building and the sidewalk.”

The specific causes of the collapse beneath Kona’s are unknown at this time, said Fritz McKinley, director of the city’s Building and Development Services department. An engineer’s report is being prepared for the owners of the building, he said, adding that it “will give the exact reasons for the failure, for lack of a better term.”

City Manager Brian Nakamura said the city is looking into whether the issue is widespread.

“We’re trying to talk to business owners, and listen to them,” he said, “as well as look at historical documents within the city to see if there are other areas similar to what’s in front of Kona’s.”

Ultimately, he said, it’s a wait-and-see situation.

“There are some parts of our streets that are pretty much not affected by [the elements], but then as you drive down the streets you can see where potholes are forming, and the streets are cracking … and those are immediate fixes that we need to take care of and continue to provide safe passage for.”

As to the question of who is ultimately responsible for repair and upkeep of downtown sidewalks, the municipal code offers this: “When any portion of the sidewalk is out of repair, or pending reconstruction, and in a condition to endanger persons or property, or in condition to interfere with the public convenience in the use of such sidewalk, the director shall notify the owner of the property fronting on that sidewalk of such sidewalk so out of repair, and directing such owner to repair said sidewalk.”

But that’s all Greek to Yarbrough, who’s waiting to hear from his insurance company so he can “sleep and gain some of my youth back.”

“Nobody got injured, which is honestly shocking,” he said. “If you want to start with the basics, we’re lucky that didn’t happen.”