- Associated Press - Saturday, October 22, 2016

ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) - Joe Betty Sterkx has spent decades living in Alexandria’s Garden District. In that time, all she’s ever known is brick in front of her house on Albert Street.

“I’ve lived there since I was 15,” she said. “Now I’m 80. I just can’t see (the Garden District) without them. They’ve been there such a long time.”

The brick surface on streets such as Albert and Marye is one of the defining characteristics of the Garden District, which is listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. But sometime in the next few years, the city will have to decide whether it can or will preserve that surface.

While it can vary due to conditions, the most often cited fact about brick streets is they last for 100 years. The brick on Garden District streets was likely laid in the early 1920s, which means it could be nearing the end of its functional lifespan.

“Over the years, the neighbors have been lenient with the city in knowing we might have to patch some parts,” said Mayor Jacques Roy. “But there will come a point when we run up on an amount of years - that 100 years, if you will - when we have to think about a larger redo.”

The big question - one the city does not yet have an answer to - is, how much would it cost to repair or restore the Garden District’s brick streets?

Building or re-laying a brick street typically costs much more than paving it with asphalt. The benefit is they can last a century or more, while asphalt normally has to be replaced every 15 years.

Roy said the city has had recent discussions about those streets and has “committed to dig in deep and come up with a plan” for their future. He hopes a plan will be in place by the end of the year to at least address the worst areas.

“I think people want the historic bricks laid the same way, but it’s one of the most expensive overlays you can do,” Roy said. “While the upfront cost is high, they will last another 100 years. So it will be a balancing act.”

“I can’t imagine driving down Marye Street with a bright white concrete surface,” said Megan Lord, who assists people in restoring historic properties through her company, Hunt & Gather Home LLC. “They have stayed intact for so long. We don’t want to lose them now.”

The growth of Alexandria was often paved in brick.

The first brick street in town was Second Street, which, according to a 1921 Town Talk article, was laid in 1901 at a cost of $17,456.68. According to the article, it was the second road to be paved in the city, after Monroe Street, which was covered with gravel.

The city continued paving roads in the years that followed, using both brick and asphalt.

“They would have started (paving) in downtown, then moved outward,” said Sarah Mason, director of the Alexandria Historic Preservation Commission.

By the 1920s, asphalt had become the more popular paving material, and in the ensuing decades countless brick streets nationwide were paved over. Many of Alexandria’s original brick streets are gone now, a fate many would like to see avoided in the Garden District (the city has tried to tie in to its historical identity by “stamping” and painting asphalt into brick patterns on roads such as Third Street and Bolton Avenue).

Alexandria isn’t alone in seeing the value of its historic brick streets.

As a 2003 report from USA Today detailing efforts to preserve or restore brick streets around the country found, “with the growth of cookie-cutter suburbs and strip malls, cities are trying to reduce sameness and make themselves more attractive by etching an identity in brick.”

In Central Louisiana, Natchitoches spent more than eight months and $3 million to rehabilitate the brick surface on its historic Front Street, a mecca for tourists. Fifty years earlier, members of an earlier forerunner of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches physically blocked bulldozers from tearing up the bricks so they could be replaced with asphalt (the state scrapped the project soon after).

“Not long ago, I was sitting in one of the historic homes along Jefferson Street when the horse-pulled carriage, full of tourists, passed the home,” said Susan Dollar, an APHN board member. “With the brick streets, the horses’ hooves took me back in time, and I almost felt the past and present blend there for a moment. … Some folks say the bricks make them feel seasick, but I love them. They encourage folks to move more slowly along, and to enjoy the historic ambiance around them.”

In addition to adding character and charm, proponents of brick streets say they slow traffic, increasing safety in residential neighborhoods and exposure to businesses in commercial districts. They can also enhance property values, rejuvenate neglected areas and spur redevelopment of historic properties.

“It’s part of the historic landscape,” Mason said. “It gives people a sense of history when they go to and from their homes every day. There’s something about them that’s very appealing. It gives the street a sense of character.”

“Everyone appreciates the buildings in the Garden District, but it’s the smaller things that also make up the character of it,” Lord said. “The bricks streets and trees are two of those things. It’s part of the value. … The issue is, just like with an older house, you’re dealing with older materials and the expenses can be higher. But if you put in that expense up front, it will last longer than a modern quick fix.”

The issue is money. Communities that have repaired or restored brick streets reported they cost at least three times as much and sometimes more than 10 times as much as estimated asphalt costs.

Proponents of brick streets argue the cost is worth it, and is mitigated by savings in maintenance and reconstruction costs over the longer life of the road. But there is a point where the upfront cost is too prohibitive, particularly for a small or medium-sized city.

“I love our brick streets,” said Garden District resident Jeff Phillips. “I think they’re great for the neighborhood. I think they help with property values. But I understand they’re expensive.”

Roy seems committed to trying to find a way to preserve the brick surface.

“I like them,” he said. “I grew up there. I want to see those streets the way they’ve always been. Particularly with how much we’ve given up in historically significant assets. We don’t want to give up the last really significant parts from the historical tapestry of our city.”

Sterkx, who is also president of the Alexandria Historic Preservation Commission, says her concern is not only that the streets remain brick, but that they’re restored or rebuilt the right way.

“It seems like such a simple solution to me - lay them down the way they were before,” she said. “Those bricks have lasted pretty well for a long time, almost 100 years, but if we don’t do them right we’re going to lose them. I just want it to be as pretty as it can be. I don’t want to throw something away out of carelessness.”

___

Information from: Alexandria Daily Town Talk, https://www.thetowntalk.com

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