Historic Preservation Commission proposes restoration of brick streets

Thursday, October 10, 2013 | 6:53 p.m. CDT; updated 12:17 a.m. CDT, Friday, October 11, 2013
Columbia has both exposed and covered brick streets. Two Columbia City Council commissions are debating the future of these roads. The Historic Preservation Commission has provided guidelines for exposing covered brick streets and maintaining those that are uncovered. Members of the City Council’s Disabilities Commission oppose the proposal.

COLUMBIA — A comprehensive plan for maintaining, repairing and restoring Columbia's brick streets has been drawn up by the Historic Preservation Commission.

The proposal sets rules for road crews working within a designated area downtown, and outlines a schedule for re-laying exposed brick streets and uncovering those that have been covered.

The plan is detailed, ambitious and, like most big plans, not to everyone's liking.

The heart of the proposal rests with the establishment of a "core brick street zone" in downtown Columbia, bordered by Ash Street on the north, Rollins Street on the south, Fourth Street on the west and College Avenue on the east.

No bricks within this area, either covered or exposed, could be permanently removed under the terms of the plan, and no exposed brick streets could be covered in the future.

If road crews needed to extract some bricks to do their work, they'd have to put them back in place after they finished. If the bricks were underneath asphalt at the time of work, they would be re-covered.

There is an exception for certain currently covered "priority" streets. This list of streets includes such popular thoroughfares within the core zone as Broadway and Ninth Street. If workers encounter bricks on these streets, the bricks are to be cleaned and stored for future use.

This leads to the part of the proposal that has generated some pushback.

The plan provides a guideline for the gradual uncovering and restoration of other brick streets over the next 20 years. It also outlines a process by which residents of unexposed brick streets outside the core zone can vote on having their blocks uncovered.

This is a cause for concern to some disability rights advocates, who see the Historic Preservation Commission's plan as prioritizing the past at the expense of the present.

"We all appreciate history, but the history of design has been that it's not accessible," said Chuck Graham, a member of the Disabilities Commission and Assistant Director of the Great Plains ADA Center.

Graham made his remarks at a meeting Thursday of the Disabilities Commission. Several members mentioned the difficulty and discomfort they have experienced while navigating Columbia's often bumpy brick streets. They plan to write a letter to the Columbia City Council expressing their disapproval of new brick streets.

"There's not a civil right to ambiance. There is a civil right to accessibility," Graham said.

Brent Gardner, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, said the focus on new brick streets is a distraction from the real purpose of the policy resolution.

"The main thing this does is to maintain current brick streets," Gardner said. "That's the No. 1 priority. We don't want that point to get lost."

In an attempt to better understand the concerns of disability advocates, two members of the Historic Preservation Commission, Douglas Jones and Robert Tucker, recently borrowed a friend's wheelchair and navigated the exposed brick surface of Glenwood Avenue. They chose that street, Jones said, because it's in relatively good shape, and best represents what they hope all the city's brick streets will be like in the future once the proper restoration is done.

"In comparison to the sidewalks, we didn't find the brick streets to be significantly more difficult," Jones said.

This conflict between everyday road work and Columbia's brick streets, which were designated a "Most Notable Property" by the Historic Preservation Commission in 2010,  has long been a concern for the Public Works Department. The simple fact was work crews didn't always know how to proceed when their work necessitated disturbing brick streets, Gardner said.

"There's never been an official policy in place," Gardner said. "Public Works has looked at it as an old type of road surface. We look at it as a historic part of the city that needs repair."

About a year and a half ago, Public Works Director John Glascock got in touch with members of the Historic Preservation Commission and asked them to come up with some guidelines his workers could abide by, Gardner said. The result is the current plan, written in the form of a policy resolution.

The resolution has been sent back to Glascock for review, and is set to be delivered to the council as a report at its next meeting on Oct. 21.

The council has the option of sending it to other commissions for comment. In order for the policy resolution to become binding, the council would schedule a public hearing and vote.

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Ellis Smith October 10, 2013 | 9:23 p.m.

Where there are problems with paving brick streets it is seldom that the bricks are the problem: it's usually a problem with the base on which the bricks were laid. Paving bricks are made to a differing set of specificatons than the bricks you see on the exterior of homes and buildings: "pavers" (industry term) are very strong and also very resistant to water absorption.

I grew up in a city with many brick streets, including all the streets in our neighborhood. Many of those streets were initially paved between 1880 and World War I.

Laying and repairing such streets is LABOR INTENSIVE versus pouring concrete. What was the hourly labor rate in 1880 or 1914? What is the hourly labor rate today?

Paving bricks continue to be made today by some brick manufacturers; their modern use tends to be more for private driveways, sidewalks, patios, etc.

Traffic load pressures on commercial streets today are higher than in 1880 or 1914. The bricks can take it, but can the bases on which they've been laid?

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