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Pacific Beach groups take clean streets and sidewalks into their own hands

A before-and-after example of the Pacific Beach Town Council's sidewalk power-washing efforts on Garnet Avenue.
A before-and-after example of the Pacific Beach Town Council’s sidewalk power-washing efforts on Garnet Avenue.
(Brian White)

The streets of Pacific Beach are getting some extra attention lately.

Efforts led by groups such as the Pacific Beach Town Council and Street Stewards are cleaning the streets and sidewalks of litter, stains, sticky gum residue and other eyesores.

The Town Council is tackling dirty sidewalks much like its weed abatement program trims overgrown vegetation on traffic medians throughout Pacific Beach.

If you’ve noticed that traffic medians in Pacific Beach look less overrun with weeds lately, thank the Pacific Beach Town Council — volunteers who have taken it on themselves to spruce up the streets.

Town Council President Brian White said the sidewalk cleanup project is long overdue.

“It’s something that has been talked about for decades really. Our sidewalks have been neglected for a very long time,” he said. “With years and decades worth of gum and grime on the sidewalks, our Town Council is stepping in to clean things up. Gum removal is a hot topic. When you have a lot of it on the sidewalks, it’s noticeable. People want to have clean sidewalks. It’s really just the basics. They make people happy.”

“Cleaning sidewalks isn’t normally in our lane as a Town Council,” he added. “But since the city isn’t delivering better services, we’re getting it done ourselves. Some of this gunk on the ground has been there for 10 or 20 years ... so removing it takes extra time. It’s a process; it doesn’t happen all at once.”

San Diego city spokesman Anthony Santacroce told PB Monthly that the city doesn’t provide sidewalk cleaning or power-washing services. According to City Council policy, maintenance and repair of sidewalk space is the responsibility of the adjacent property owners, he said.

“Typically, business improvement districts and community groups such those in Pacific Beach are formed in part to provide an enhanced level of service to community members — including sidewalk cleaning,” Santacroce said. “Any health hazard or safety issue regarding sidewalks can be reported to the city through the Get It Done system. However, cleaning and beautification services are left to the particular community to determine.”

Photos show the boardwalk in Pacific Beach at Garnet Avenue after it got a cleaning from the Pacific Beach Town Council.
Photos show the boardwalk in Pacific Beach at Garnet Avenue after it got a cleaning from the Pacific Beach Town Council.
(Brian White)

The Town Council’s sidewalk power-washing program is funded through donations on its website. The service comes with added costs because it requires a skilled hand and specialized equipment.

“As people have been seeing the results, they’re encouraged, they love it, they’re donating because they want to help out,” White said. “We’re also going to businesses and property owners and saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing this, we’re trying to remove the gum; do you want to chip in?’”

A professional power washer (who happens to be a Pacific Beach resident) has been handling the Town Council projects and was referred by fellow business owners because he already does cleaning in front of area bars, banks and shops that want clean sidewalks to help attract more business.

But simply cleaning the sidewalks isn’t enough to achieve the desired results, White said. Maintaining the clean sidewalks is another important aspect. He said his group regularly advises businesses on how to do that.

The council has suggested things such as cleaning out trash cans and double-bagging trash so the bags don’t leak, thereby reducing drip lines that stain the sidewalk over and over again.

White said the idea of using volunteers and hand tools in certain areas for gum removal isn’t out of the question, but he isn’t sure how feasible it would be. More research is needed before going that route, he said.

“I’ll probably actually go out myself pretty soon and give it a test,” he said. “And then once I see and document how it works and how hard it is, if it works well, we’ll buy 20 of those tools — 20 scrapers, 20 wire brushes — and then say, ‘Hey y’all, whoever wants to come out … .’

“And then we’re dealing with a dirty sidewalk, right? ... That’s also a sanitation issue, so I don’t know, when you bring volunteers in, do you want to expose them to a very dirty ground? So I think we might have a power washer clean the sidewalk so that we’re not all working on dirty ground.

“These are things to work out, and I just need ideas on how we can do it. But I want to make sure that it’s safe for people to even be touching the ground.”

Removing gum is no easy feat. It involves different techniques, vendors and price points.

“There are a number of techniques for removing gum,” White said. “Power washing is one technique, and another technique that we’ve looked at is dry ice blasting.”

The latter uses pressurized dry ice to clean a surface. It’s considered effective for removing gum from sidewalks, but it isn’t cheap. While dry ice blasting doesn’t leave a residue, power washing can remove gum more cost-effectively, White said.

Santacroce offered a reminder that power-washing activities are subject to state, regional and city regulations, including that no water from the cleaning may enter the storm drain system, including the curb and gutter next to the sidewalk.

Another effort to clean up Pacific Beach is the Street Stewards program, started in 2018 by Ocean Beach resident Aaron Null.

Null, a graphic designer, came up with the idea of a volunteer-based adopt-a-street program. The idea started in OB, but he has led efforts to spread it to other San Diego neighborhoods, including Pacific Beach, Hillcrest, North Park, Point Loma and Normal Heights/Kensington, he said.

“The model has worked, so we’re just running with it,” Null said.

Street Stewards volunteers look geared up to clean up.
(Courtesy)

Null created community maps that enable people to choose streets they want to be responsible for cleaning on a weekly basis.

“I pick up [litter] in front of my house, but I saw all this energy on social media, these groups on Facebook, these people that are complaining,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy. There’s community spirit, but we didn’t really have a way to transfer that energy into something positive. So the idea of the map was to say, ‘OK, these are people who have signed up; are you going to do it?’ That social pressure really did kind of work out.”

Volunteers can use the Street Stewards neighborhood map for Pacific Beach to choose streets to clean up.
(Courtesy)

“There’s a form for each neighborhood [on the group’s website]; you can select which neighborhood you’re in and then you can fill in which streets you’d like to take,” Null said. “And there’s a link to the full-resolution maps for each neighborhood so you can see where is open and where you might fit in.”

It’s all based on the honor system. “We don’t really check in or anything. We just bank that people are honest about it, and it kind of handles itself that way,” Null said.

He said he’s working on a Street Stewards app to help spread the mission.

Street Stewards attracts volunteers ranging from stay-at-home moms to young families who want to teach their children about community service, Null said.

In Pacific Beach, he directs volunteers to Don’t Trash PB, another grassroots group dedicated to cleaning up the streets.

Don’t Trash PB has a program in which, for $15, it will send cleaning supplies to volunteers, including a bucket and a grabber stick. Participants who send a photo of a bucket filled with trash will get $5 back. After three times, the tools are essentially free.

For White, the Town Council’s sidewalk cleaning won’t be considered a success unless it continues.

“People are literally donating to the cause. They want to see this, so if we can’t provide sustained cleanliness at a higher standard, then we’re not successful,” he said. “We have to do right by these community donations. ...

“It’s all pieces of a puzzle and they all need to come together, because it can’t just be us covering the cost ... for the indefinite future. It’s not sustainable. We’re putting in money, we’re getting these initial cleans in, the community is supporting with their portion of donations, some businesses are chipping in because they realize it’s a good cause. We need a combination of all of it to maintain it for the future, and costs will come down because maintenance cleanings will be less.”

For more information about the Town Council sidewalk cleaning efforts or to donate, visit pbtowncouncil.org/power-washing.

To volunteer for the Street Stewards program, visit streetstewards.com.


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