Cities in the Corridor keep brick streets for character, ambiance

Despite providing some nostalgia, some communities struggle with maintenance costs

Gregg Hennigan
Published: February 4 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:06 am in

IOWA CITY – John Gavin has done projects nationwide using antique bricks, and he’s noticed a common theme when it comes to streets made of that old-fashioned material.

“The one street that always got bricked was the street that went from the church to the graveyard because of the weight,” said Gavin, founder of Iowa City-based Historical Bricks, which reclaims high-quality bricks for use in construction projects.

That’s the case in Iowa City, where what may be the most prominent path among the city’s 26 blocks that still have brick is Linn and Brown streets. They were lined with brick in 1907 to provide a hard surface for funeral processions between churches near downtown to Oakland and St. Joseph cemeteries to the northeast, according to the writings of city historian Irving Weber.

Brick streets are rare these days, but communities across Iowa and the country are avoiding burying them under more modern surfaces such as asphalt or concrete.

There is no data on how many brick streets there are, but David Hein, vice president of transportation at Applied Research Associates, an international engineering company headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M., said he is seeing more brick-street restoration projects all over North America as communities seek the charm the material offers.

“It’s got that old-time feel to it,” he said. “And also they just happen to be a product that has a better life cycle than asphalt”

Hein cited streets in Boston, Baltimore, Champaign, Ill., and Toronto, where he is located.

Brick streets are being protected and restored across Iowa, too.

Iowa City has completed two projects in recent years and has a policy that says the City Council must approve any decision to pave over brick.

Davenport requires certain streets remain brick and budgets for their maintenance.

Cedar Rapids has one mile of brick streets, but it does not restore them. Because of their durability the city doesn’t have to worry about them too much, but it has reconstructed parts of some brick streets in the past year with concrete, said Craig Hanson, the city’s public works maintenance manager.

There are a lot of brick streets, about 40 miles worth, still running through Cedar Rapids, but they’re out of view because they’ve been paved over with asphalt, he said.

Most of the original streets in the city’s core were brick – just about anything built before 1920 – but more than 95 percent of them have been overlaid with asphalt, he said. Those streets will last several decades, Hanson said.

That longevity is found in other brick infrastructure, too. The city just finished the replacement of a brick storm sewer dating to the 1890s that was damaged in the 2008 flood.

“It’s lasted 120 years,” Hanson said. “And if it hadn’t been for 2008 destruction to it, that thing would still be in use today.”

Brick streets last several decades, compared with 25 years max for new asphalt, Hein said.

For many communities, restoring brick streets is about capturing a time past.

Several years ago, the small town of Adel, about 20 miles west of Des Moines, needed to decide what to do with its aging two miles of brick streets. The first question was how important the 100-year-old roadways were to the community.

The resounding response was very important, although more so in downtown than in residential neighborhoods, said Chad Bird, the then-city administrator who now holds the same position in Decorah. Some people objected to the cost to restore several brick streets around the town square – at nearly $1.8 million, it was roughly double the price tag of paving – but the majority of residents and the business community felt otherwise.

“They added that character to our community,” Bird said. “They made the community what it is and what it’s known for.”

Bird said brick streets can help a small town stand out and attract visitors.

“If you’re just going to do the four streets around the (town) square or something like that, maybe twice the cost is worth it if it adds that little boost of economic activity or benefit,” he said. “Maybe it becomes an economic driver.”

Primarily because of the cost, brick streets are not without controversy.

Just last fall, some Marion residents criticized the city over brick streets in its Uptown streetscape project, saying some of the roadways were “crumbling” after just one year. A council member defending the decision said some bricks were not installed correctly but were being fixed.

In the mid-1990s, the city of Cedar Rapids planned to asphalt a brick street in Wellington Heights because restoring it would be too expensive. A neighborhood group raised money and volunteered labor and were able to save a portion of it near Redmond Park.

Controversy over what do with the brick streets in Williamsburg was a major campaign issue in the 1995 City Council election, according to a Gazette article from the time.

And despite its policy, the Iowa City Council debated in 2002 whether it was worth the cost to restore brick streets in especially poor shape.

“I’m not touching this one with a 10-foot pole,” council member Connie Champion said at the time.

In 2010 the council reaffirmed its commitment to brick streets, particularly in historic neighborhoods. City staffers are proposing $800,000 go in the capital improvement plan, which could do about two average-sized blocks, said Rick Fosse, Iowa City’s public works director.

The city redid one block of Bowery Street a few years ago and this past summer finished restoring Dewey Street near Oakland Cemetery.

“It maintains the character of the neighborhood,” Fosse said.

It can be a rough ride on older brick streets. A driver feels the vibration rolling over the individual bricks, and the surface can wear unevenly.

On Brown Street in Iowa City, there are frequent dips, especially in intersections. Drivers who don’t slow down risk damaging their cars, but the traffic-calming effect is applauded by some people.

The Historic Phillips House Bed & Breakfast sits off brick-paved Linn Street in Iowa City. Robin Christianson, who runs the inn and lives there with her husband, Kim Miller, said the tree-lined brick streets add to the ambiance of the neighborhood, which is one of the oldest in Iowa City and has homes dating to the 1800s.

Many of their guests are visiting the nearby University of Iowa and often walk to and from campus.

“Just kind of historic,” Christianson said of the overall effect. “Just gives a lovely feel to their visit.”

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