ONARCHITECTURE- Waste not, want not: should Mall bricks be re-used?


? Green City? Eighty percent of the Mall's bricks are in good shape, according to City planners. So why isn't the City re-using any of them as part of the $7 million Mall renovation project?

In June, the City hosted a public meeting on the proposed $7 million plan to replace the brickwork on the Downtown Mall, during which a majority of those who spoke criticized the enormous expenditure and suggested the existing brickwork should either be repaired or reused. In addition, a survey was completed by the nearly 50 people in attendance, which according to city planning staff's own analysis, indicated that people believed the project cost was "too high for the City to undertake in these economic times" and that the existing brick should be repaired or reused.   


A month prior to the meeting, Councilor Satyendra Huja said publicly that he thought the Mall project "could be done for a lot less" by cleaning up the existing bricks and reusing them. 

"First, we need to use the bricks we have," he said, "and this will save money and preserve the character of the Mall." 

At one time, city planners had wanted to use either 4" x 8" or 5" x 10" bricks for the renovation, an idea that outraged preservationists. Mall designer Lawrence Halprin himself urged the city to use the existing 4" x 12" sized brick. Responding to those concerns, city planners finally elected to use the existing 4" x 12" brick size for the renovation, despite engineering concerns that the longer bricks could be unstable when set in sand, the chosen method for laying them. 

As a result, many have wondered why the existing 4" x 12" bricks couldn't simply be repaired or reused.

Noted UVA architectural historian Daniel Bluestone, speaking before Council on July 25, the night they voted on the project, again reiterated what many had said at the public meeting, urging Council to handle the Mall's "long-deferred maintenance problem" by hiring masons from the Charlottesville community to make the best of what's already there. "The existing bricks on the Mall could be easily recycled and re-used," he said.

As part of a pedestrian Mall renovation in Columbus, Ohio, a job program for high school students was created in which students cleaned the mortar off old bricks and prepared them for reuse. Locally, some have even floated the idea of employing the growing downtown homeless population in such a task.  

Councilors, however, voted 5-0 to move forward with the $7 million plan to replace all 375,000 bricks with new ones beginning in January 2009, a project that City planners have promised will be done by May 2009. The idea of reusing the existing bricks was never discussed. 

"What gives?" asks preservation activist Aaron Wunsch. "People implore City Council not to squander millions on a needless brick replacement program, they point out that most of the bricks are in good shape and that disposing of them would be a horrible waste, then Council votes unanimously to proceed as planned."

Indeed, as City planners have said, over 80 percent of the bricks on the Mall are in good condition. Ironically, the same planners argued early on for replacement by pointing out that many of the bricks have come loose from their mortar joints, effectively removing themselves, a situation that would appear to aid a reuse plan. Even more ironic, the fact that a majority of the bricks are in good shape is the reason why they can't be saved. Addressing the re-use issue, planners and brick industry experts have said it would be difficult to remove the more securely mortared bricks in such a small time-frame without damaging most of them.

"I'd urge city officials and the public to go out and use their eyes," says Wunsch. "Most of the bricks are fine, and, even where mortar is missing, very few have shifted position. This, after four decades– can we really expect a new Mall to hold up better?"

Of course, such protestations appear moot since councilors have already sealed the Mall's fate. On Tuesday, August 19, the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review will make its final recommendations concerning the brick size, the design of the drainage runnels (yep, that's what they're called), and other design specifics, but it's unlikely the BAR will require any kind of reuse plan. 

So what's going to happen to all that discarded brick?

According to City spokesperson Ric Barrick, no decision has been made about exactly what to do with the discarded brick. "But we are determined that the bricks will be re-used or recycled or both," he says.

While that doesn't mean re-using or recycling them for the Mall project, Barrick says it could mean grinding up broken ones for mulch around trees in area parks or for trail cover, offering intact ones for sale to the public, and even offering them to merchants as a giveaway to customers for shopping at their store.

However, a pile of free, unusually-sized bricks could be little consolation to downtown merchants, positioned to take the brunt of the disruption.

"If it was my vote, I'd say leave it alone," says Men & Boy's Shop owner Mike Kidd, who was here when the Mall was constructed 32 years ago. "Personally, I'd like to see it re-grouted."

Across the Mall, however, spectacle purveyor Jon Bright sees the original decision to go with grout as the problem.

"Dry-laid brick streets survive for hundreds of years without problems," says Bright. "After 30 years, it's a little worn and a little beat-up, so it's time to freshen it."

Bob Stroh, president of the Downtown Business Association, has enthusiastically endorsed the City's accelerated plan to re-brick the Mall within five months, from January and May 2009. Yet some merchants, such as the clothing-selling Kidd, remain skeptical. 

"They want to get it done in May– May of what year?" says Kidd, recalling the eighteen months it took to complete the original Mall project. "Once a project like this gets started, you can't stop it. I wish them all the best, but if they get it done in that time frame, it will be a miracle."