by Michael R. Allen
Recently I wrote about two lovely intact brick alleys in the St. Louis Place neighborhood on the north side (see “St. Louis Place: Sidewalk Plaques and Brick Alleys”, February 11). After publishing that post, I learned that there is a pilot program underway to restore 17 brick alleys in two of the city’s south side historic districts, the Gravois-Jefferson Historic Streetcar Suburb District and the Benton Park Historic District. Some work began in December in Gravois Park, and more will start when weather is consistently dry. Work will be completed by August 10, 2011.
When alderpeople put in requests for allocation of the city’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, Alderman Craig Schmid (D-20th) successfully applied for $975,000 to restore and retain historic brick alleys in the historic districts of his ward. The city’s Department of Streets stopped repairing brick alleys in 1978. Subsequently, many miles of brick alleys — which are durable, made from long-lasting brick, easy to repair and moderately water-permeable — have been paved over with asphalt that comes from a nonrenewable source, is not water permeable and is expensive and difficult to repair. Paved brick alleys typically have problems with settling that new paving only compounds. The city fills depressions in brick alleys that eventually sink again, and finds itself having to pave and repave alleys that could have simply been restored. Asphalt paving destroys the integrity of paver bricks, so that even when asphalt surface material is removed the alleys cannot be restored. The practice is unsustainable and expensive.
Meanwhile, the city no longer repairs existing brick alleys. If residents don’t want asphalt, they won’t get any repairs. Also some aldermen use allocations of paving to pave brick alleys with no problems in order to avoid having to return allocations. Schmid has wanted to retain brick alleys for awhile, but could not use existing money to do so. The Department of Streets needs to change its brick alley policy. Meanwhile, the 20th Ward is the first to experiment with restoring brick alleys using a one-time grant of federal stimulus money.
The good news is that federal stimulus money is funding a small but significant project that implements a sustainable approach to retaining brick alley paving. The project fits the goals of the Obama administration in encouraging green practices through federal spending, but it still leaves permanent policy changes up to the city of St. Louis.