Downtown Houston: paved with good intentions.

One of the most unnerving characteristics of the built environment is when an alternative taste culture becomes so entrenched and so mundane that we forget that it wasn’t always the status quo. And it’s even worse when this anti-establishment product yields an inferior outcome whatever it was that preceded it. I’m speaking so vaguely that might be hard to understand what I’m talking about. But I’m also playing my hand. As is often the case, how about I play my hand with a visual example?

Houston brick paversHere we witness a stretch of sidewalk on the northern side of Houston’s downtown—all bricked up and no one walking on it at the start of the late-afternoon rush hour. The lack of pedestrians downtown most likely reflects a host of other issues that Houston’s leadership continues to confront. And, to be fair, these pictures date from the spring of 2013, so this block, filled with marvelously preserved yet underutilized old commercial buildings, may enjoy rosier fortunes today.DSCF8626DSCF8624Regardless of the condition of the real estate, the streetscape merits particular attention: it is clad almost completely in brick.

Like virtually every downtown in America, Houston has attempted to soften the visual appearance of its downtown to expedite its revitalization. Sixty-five years ago, when downtowns were still the pre-eminent and often the exclusive commercial node to small or even medium-sized cities, they didn’t need to focus so greatly on aesthetics so that they could compete. (And Houston in 1950 had approximately 600,000 people—about a quarter of the city’s population today.) Downtowns’ competing forces were merely setting up shop down the street, or another sub-district within the same downtown. Obviously the emergence of shopping centers, malls, and parking lots changed all of that. And it’s changing again, as online retail and commerce takes a larger bite out of real estate with each passing year.

Particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s, before urban revitalization had morphed into a mainstream phenomenon, many cities large and small attempted to enhance the appeal of their downtowns through streetscape improvements. The practice borrowed heavily from the mostly failed pedestrian malls that cities attempted in the late 1970s (one in Baltimore caught my attention recently) In recent years, even small towns have jumped the bandwagon, devoting considerable portions of their annual budget to benches, decorative lighting, landscapes, customized street signs, and, of course, those brick sidewalks.

Now about those bricks…DSCF8648It sure seems like we love ‘em. Any district that is attempting to assume an up-market, historic, or simply distinctive cachet often first and foremost seeks some alternative to the concrete pavement. The photo above, at another portion of Houston’s downtown, opts for a elaborate pattern of square pavers for 90% of the sidewalk, while only the remaining 10% directly abutting the curb receives the conventional concrete treatment. Perhaps the unusual paver pattern helps distinguish the area as a special historic district, reflected in the street signs…DSCF8647…which, in turn, the pavers reinforce.DSCF8649

I’m less averse to the mishmash of styles than the fact that they all depend on a paving scheme hundreds of times more complicated than simple concrete. The all-brick sidewalk in the first photo is probably the most frustrating: besides the fact that this approach requires far more investment and long-term maintenance, the array of tiny pavers results—as I have noted before—in a higher density of cracks and interstices, which just means more opportunity for things to go wrong: individual bricks to get dislodged, unevenness that spawns tripping hazards, calls for further maintenance to keep it looking good. Additionally, brick is a material that decays easily from water intrusion unless the installers treat it with a glazing or sealant, but that same glazing forces water to rest as a thin film atop the bricks, making a brick sidewalk unnecessarily slippery when wet. This might be less of a problem in a dry climate; Houston is not a dry climate. Those of us who like to run in urban settings know how treacherous brick sidewalks can be.

As for the multi-colored squares as pavers, they might achieve a desirable compromise between brick and boring, conventional concrete slabs.DSCF8636If the materials are, as they often appear, merely a cement-based aggregate with dyes in them, the strategy probably helps to fend against the slippery conditions fostered by masonry. But once again, the number of interstices inevitably results in higher maintenance needs, and a dislodged piece of colored concrete is just as likely of a pedestrian threat as an equally unstable brick. A far better compromise might be the approach I discovered in rural Oklahoma several years ago, where the sidewalk primarily used concrete with brick accents right at the edge (next to the curb), which still achieved aesthetic goals without fostering lots of new tripping hazards.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m making mountains out of molehills through all this pearl-clutching about pavers. The number of serious injuries caused by tripping is probably minimal; I’d wager that fatalities sit squarely at zero. As I’ve learned firsthand through family experience, successful litigation against negligent property owners in slip-and-fall situations is extremely rare, so odds that public works departments will revert back to conventional concrete sidewalks thanks to a few whiners are slim. But the treatment is not necessarily better than the disease, and a cost/benefit or Pareto efficiency analysis on aestheticized sidewalks is not likely to show a net gain accrued to adjacent property owners, to perceptions of downtown as a whole, or even to overall impact on the revitalization forces already in play. Drab concrete sidewalks are cheaper and safer than most decorative alternatives.  But those alternatives stand out visually, and, when so many districts are competing for consumer attention, achieving surface bling may seem worth every penny.

Then again, one could argue that brick sidewalks (and streets) are merely a return to the paving surface used before cars became ubiquitous and the more durable concrete overtook the urban landscape. And, with the re-emergence of aesthetic brickwork, that the taste culture has come around full circle…which of course leads to the rejoinder that we have yet to learn from any of our mistakes from the past. But we knew that already.

14 thoughts on “Downtown Houston: paved with good intentions.

  1. Anthony Toth

    Eric, real bricks are made of clay. Today’s pavers, are made of concrete and often imitate brick. It is, as you know, a huge industry, and i often question the designs put forth on many of our municipal right-of-ways.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks Anthony; appreciate your feedback. I’m sure a materials scientist could break this down with far more nuance than I could, but, as I understand it, the carbon structure of both bricks (clay) and cement would classify them as ceramics, meaning they have far more similarities than differences. Yet almost all evidence suggests that, despite its drawbacks, cement handles wear-and-tear imposed by vehicles and pedestrians better than brick–or artificial brick. I have no doubt that the pavers in the featured photo for this blog article are exactly as you describe them: concrete designed to imitate brick. (Probably also the ones in other photos that look exactly like brick, like the sidewalk fronting the Copacabana.) I still think the biggest problem, regardless of material, is when sidewalks/streets get paved with something that requires a high concentration of gaps and interstices, which just creates more opportunities for something to go wrong–and a whole lot more maintenance to repair it. Now that I live in Washington DC, they love using “bricks” on the sidewalk (still slippery, regardless of the material) and bricks on their rowhouses, which I assume still use actual clay. Incidentally, the way homeowners glaze the bricks in DC, allowing all sorts of different colors, could also speed the bricks’ deterioration, which became a conversation in a previous blog from earlier this year: http://dirtamericana.com/2017/03/capitol-hill-defining-historic-map/

      Reply
  2. Alex Pline

    Seems to me a good compromise would be stamped concrete that has the appearance of pavers, yet is contiguous concrete with a paver pattern stamped in it. Slightly more expensive than concrete but much more durable than pavers. However, the historic preservation crowd would get their panties in quite a twist over this in places that are truly historic. But in places where there are many other obstacles, this is probably a good solution when attempting to improve the pedestrian environment in a less than perfect situation.

    Reply
    1. Chris B

      A lot of the (mostly low traffic residential and commercial) stamped concrete I’ve seen has had a glossy finish. I imagine that can create a slipperiness problem similar to hard-fired brick since it is not porous.

      Eric mentions maintenance generally…this is (one reason) why brick streets and alleys fell out of favor. It’s a bear to dig up and repair something buried under a brick-paved surface regardless of the type.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Thanks Alex: I agree that stamped concrete should be a good compromise, though, if it’s slipper as Chris suggests, perhaps it should serve simply as an “accent”, comprising only 20% of the sidewalk’s surface area or less. Still looks nice but doesn’t dominate the surface or create as many hazards.

        Chris, perhaps you know better than I do: what is the practice they used on the brick at Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis? Aren’t the bricks 90% embedded in the mortar, resulting in considerably lower long-term maintenance costs?

        Reply
        1. Chris B

          Eric, I think the bricks on the Circle streets and surrounding sidewalks were embedded. That does help prevent them from popping up. That project had just finished up when I came to town in the early 80s, and it has been pretty durable. Incidentally, that design is the opposite of what you suggest: more than 80% brick with about 10-20% “accent” in concrete.

          Like “original” brick streets in Indy and elsewhere (and original track surface at the Speedway), the pavers on the “retro” streets around Monument Circle were laid on edge, not with the large rectangular face up (as pavers are laid in your example). Google Streetview here: https://www.google.com/maps/@39.7684875,-86.1572389,3a,75y,303.93h,94.67t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s-BrZgxIpNyoiXz38tcsXwg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en

          Reply
          1. AmericanDirt Post author

            Indeed, it’s the opposite. Yet it seems to pose fewer maintenance and safety problems than most other brick-clad streets, perhaps because, as you noted, the bricks (or pseudo-bricks) rest on their edges.

  3. Brian M

    Just got back from our lunchtime walk in our sleepy suburban downtown. ELABORATE streetscape (with brick pavers) installed about thirty years ago-and the maintenance issues are real.

    It looks pretty, but the lack of stop signs and the timing of the two signals we do have (and achingly long signal cycles) mean that traffic moves briskly…very briskly…through the pretty blocks. it can be a very frustrating/annoying place to walk around. 🙂

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      If it’s 30 years old, I’m guessing it’s already undergone several rounds of extensive maintenance?

      Incidentally, if you’re having difficulties with vehicles making quick right turns, a strategic arrangement of the pavers might even serve as a traffic calming device–either through tighter turn radii, some speed bumps, or a pedestrian refuge through bulb-outs that also induce tighter radii. The possibilities are limitless–but they’re all pricier than conventional crossings.

      Reply
  4. Chris B

    Back when Eli Lilly owned a larger campus (now occupied in part by Rolls Royce) on the south edge of downtown Indy, they removed most of Merrill St. and made it into a pedestrian walkway. It is now one of the main pedestrian paths from parking to the east side of Lucas Oil Stadium a few blocks west. The standard patio/path pavers used there in the late 90s are starting to blow up, as they are un-sealed concrete block with the large flat surface up. Here’s the location (https://www.google.com/maps/@39.7589251,-86.1584471,3a,72.5y,95.81h,84.79t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sTMxltcFJ_4bO2gdkBF7zAQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en) but unfortunately Google Streetview didn’t take their walking camera over the pavers so the damage isn’t evident.

    Reply
    1. Chris B

      Eric, that location is a block south and a block west of Tow Yard Brewing, between the orphan segment of S. Meridian and your infamous “phantom” S. Penn/Madison.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Thanks Chris. I am aware of that walkway, though I’ve never used it or scrutinized it. I would have guessed it’s even more recent than late 1990s. And I appreciate you recognizing my older article on the “phantom” S. Penn/Madison–still a missed opportunity if there ever was one.

        I’m just barely old enough to remember when Merrill Street was a less-used alternative to McCarty Street for connecting Kentucky Avenue on the west with Virginia Avenue on the east. These days, thanks to Lilly’s interventions, McCarty doesn’t go quite so far, and Merrill has almost completely ceased to exist outside of a few fragments.

        Reply
        1. Chris B

          Back when I was a very young professional I sometimes dropped off documents at Purolator Courier on McCarty between Madison and Madison, where the Lilly Daycare is now. 🙂 I vaguely remember getting lost on Merrill trying to get there and back to I-65/70; it was continuous, but minor then. I finally figured out that McCarty led to Calvary and the Fletcher Place on ramp…before Lilly terminated McCarty at Delaware.

          Reply

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