Lois Henry had a problem.
For years, every time a hard rain fell in her Uptown neighborhood, water would collect in the street on her block and stand for weeks. The issue became a rueful joke she shared with her next door neighbor, Rachael DePauw, who referred to the collection of rainwater as “Lake Valmont.”
“I’m not sure when I first learned about what the Urban Conservancy was doing to help people get rid of excess paving in front of their houses,” said DePauw. “But after complaining to the city forever without any action, we felt we needed to look into it.”
Both Henry and DePauw had front yards that were paved to the max, exceeding by far the 40 percent allowable by city code. Urban Conservancy Director Dana Eness recognized that the side-by-side homes would make a good pilot project for her nonprofit’s new de-paving initiative.
“There are dozens of reasons why there is so much cement everywhere, and even more reasons why it’s harmful,” said Eness. “In some cases, people think paving cuts down on yard work. But a lot of other cases have to do with curb cuts and parking.”
Eness said many locals don’t know (or willfully ignore) the 40 percent rule, making it an “after the fact” issue for Code Enforcement.
“We have identified many cases of code violations and have reported them,” Eness said. “Some folks just don’t think about the fact that changes they’re making impact everyone, especially their nearby neighbors.”
A case in point is the street flooding that a Broadmoor block has experienced ever since the owners of one home installed a semi-circular drive in their side-yard setback — without permits.
“The drive is elevated, so not only is there illegal cement where there was green space, but now water runs downhill into the sidewalk and street in front of their house,” Eness said.
The FYI was able to match the impacted homeowners with a water management professional who assessed the drainage issues and made recommendations.
Excess concrete causes rain runoff to flow to the street, where it may or may not drain into the city’s storm drains, Eness explained. If neighbors install curb cuts without a permit or add crushed stone in front of their property, water can get dammed up in front of someone else’s house and stand there indefinitely. Even if the storm water flows freely to the storm drain, it overtaxes the city’s aging infrastructure and deprives the natural environment of the water it needs to maintain a healthy water table and fight subsidence.
For the pilot project on Valmont Street, FYI volunteers cut out enough cement to create a front yard garden in front of Henry’s house and removed strips of concrete from her driveway, making room for water-absorbent grass.
Because the DePauw home is a raised basement house with driveways leading to garages on either side of the front steps, a front yard garden was not a possibility. But volunteers removed long, rectangular patches on both sides, changing the paved drive to parking strips.
In between the strips, soil has been planted with low-growing greenery. DePauw and Henry already experience less street flooding, but benefits will be maximized when the Urban Conservancy completes its work and plants cypress trees, which consume a great deal of water, in the strip between the sidewalk and the street.
Eness realizes most homeowners may not have the resources to tackle concrete removal on their own and said her group is seeking funding to help. But some homeowners have contacted the group and used recommended contractors to undertake projects themselves.
“We bought our house in 2009 and finally finished renovating it enough that we could think about what to do out front,” said Alice Roque, who lives with her husband, James, in Algiers.
Although a narrow garden bed hugged the home’s foundation, a blanket of concrete extended from the edge of the bed to the curb. The Roques wanted to expand the garden bed and remove the concrete between the sidewalk and the curb.
“I called the Urban Conservancy and got a list of cement removal contractors from them,” Roque said. “Mike Richard, of Rue Construction, came out with machines to break up the cement, took it all away, then set the forms for where the new sidewalk would go. In 48 hours, it was all complete.”
The Roques then amended the soil in the new garden bed and in the planting strip along the curb and then planted both.
“I think there were something like 275 plugs of dwarf Mondo grass I planted over a three-night span,” Roque said. “But it was worth it. Now, when I look at our house, it just looks happier.”
For more information about the Front Yard Initiative, go to urbanconservancy.org.