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Largo's brick streets: It's a matter of cost vs. character

Officials have pondered for months which old-fashioned street lamps, native trees or bricklike concrete pavers will create the nostalgic look they want in downtown Largo. Few expenses will be spared to give the city a new look that's old.

Yet when it comes to preserving the brick streets built in the 1920s when Largo was founded, money may be the deciding factor.

"Keep in mind, we all like to save the brick roads," public works director Chris Kubala said. "But it comes down to economics."

Four months from now, workers will tear up bricks on several streets to make way for pipes in a downtown drainage project. After the pipes are in place, Largo can do one of two things:

Put the bricks back, which would cost an estimated $855,000.

Or, pay less than a third of that by replacing the bricks with asphalt for about $270,000.

Officials had planned to go the less expensive route for almost two years. A month ago, folks who live on brick streets organized and started petitions to maintain what they call symbols of Largo's history.

"We have a lot of pride," said Wayne Williams, who is leading the group effort along with his wife, Susan. The Williamses said residents were unaware of the city's plans until recently.

This wouldn't be happening in St. Petersburg, where brick streets are cherished and protected.

It wouldn't happen in Clearwater either. The city has coated most of its brick streets with asphalt, leaving only a few brick alleys and side streets, public works administrator Rich Baier said.

Williams' group would rather Largo end up like St. Petersburg or other cities that value brick streets, such as Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs and Gulfport.

But the brick of Largo is a long way from the neatly bricked streets in some St. Petersburg neighborhoods. In downtown, where Largo's brick is concentrated, the streets show signs of neglect. Over the years, patches of asphalt have been slapped on to fill potholes. Steep dips at intersections threaten the front ends of cars.

The city has not done major repairs on most of the roads since they were installed, Kubala said.

Residents say brick streets last decades longer than asphalt. Although the initial bill is higher, the cost of brick streets may even out with asphalt over time. Asphalt roads usually call for repair every 20 or 25 years, Kubala said.

But is it too late?

The brick supporters have come out in what Commissioner Harriet Crozier calls "the 11th hour." And a change now in the drainage plan could result in a domino of other delays, Kubala said.

City officials have vowed that in two years, Largo's downtown will be well on its way to having quaint restaurants and activities that will draw people.

The plan is to put the drainage project up for bid in the next month or so. Construction would begin in March.

Then, the city could complete the West Bay Drive widening and the drainage work.

But the project involving the brick streets must be in place before West Bay can be completed, Kubala said. And the West Bay project has to be done before businesses can set up on that street, downtown's main thoroughfare.

If the city is going to replace the brick streets, the decision needs to come fast, Kubala said.

Mayor Thomas Feaster has encouraged residents to come up with ideas for how to pay for the brick streets' difference in cost.

So far, people are looking at other budget items in city redevelopment plans as possible sacrifices for the brick streets.

Largo has budgeted $793,000 for landscaping along roads and parking lots downtown. Williams thinks the city could hold off on some of the trees and other accents to free up money for the bricks.

"To me, that's a legitimate thing to ask," Williams said. "If I have to sacrifice this, so they can have almost $1-million worth of landscaping. . . ."

Perhaps, the city could delay some renovation plans on Clearwater-Largo Road, Williams said. Or costly plans for an acrylic coating on sidewalks downtown.

Crozier said she is pleased that residents are speaking up, regardless of the timing, and she is willing to look into ways to appease them.

Commissioner Bob Jackson wonders if other commissioners would be willing to forgo or delay $900,000 in plans to bury and relocate utilities downtown.

Jackson said it's not too late to make changes "if there is a will on the part of the community.".

Community development director Ric Goss said the issue is not simple. Several city projects involve money from the state or federal government that was earmarked for specific purposes. Switching those funds could affect other projects and, in turn, increase costs. "There are ramifications," Goss said.

This isn't the first time Largo has tangled over brick streets. People like Largo historian Sadie Johnson, who died earlier this year, fought to shield brick streets from asphalt for years.

In 1987, the city paid $157,000 to restore bricks on portions of three downtown streets, including Second Street SW.

By 1988, the city's attitude toward restoring brick streets was fading, Goss said. Second Street SW, which was restored 11 years ago, is among streets to be paved for the drainage project. Parts of Woodrow Avenue, Second Avenue SW, Sixth Street NW and Third Street NW will also be affected.

Williams said he is tired of fighting for the same thing every few years. "Every time they get a new commission in here, they want to come in and tear them up," he said.

If Williams' group wins its battle, the next step will be getting a resolution or law that prevents people from taking up the bricks in the future, as is the case in St. Petersburg.

When workers go underground for utility or sewer projects in St. Petersburg, the bricks are stockpiled, said Michael Connors, director of St. Petersburg engineering and stormwater. The base underneath is restored with sand, and the bricks are replaced.

"There's no question it's more expensive," Connors said. He estimated that the city pays about $16 a square foot to put down a brick road. Asphalt costs between $6 and $8 a square foot, he said.

Despite the cost, Laura Kammerer, with the Bureau of Historic Preservation in Tallahassee, wishes all cities took a similar stance on brick streets. "They define the historic character of the area," Kammerer said.

Williams has called Kammerer as well as a number of other agencies, contractors and politicians across the state. He said he has talked with people who specialize in brick streets who have quoted prices much cheaper than what Largo and St. Petersburg officials estimate.

State Rep. John Morroni, R-Clearwater, sent a letter to Feaster last week asking that the city slow action on the matter, so that residents have more time to look for alternatives.

Comfy VonEitzen has walked door-to-door to get petition signatures. She said she has watched city leaders gradually strip Largo of its history.

"They're taking everything away," VonEitzen said. "There's nothing for those old folks who've been around here a long time to hang on to."

VonEitzen used to travel frequently and would return to Largo for visits. During one visit, she noticed an old downtown theater was gone.

On another visit, VonEitzen said she felt something was missing, but couldn't put her finger on it right away. Then, she knew.

"It was those bricks," VonEitzen said.

The city had paved over the bricks on Fourth Street NW south of West Bay Drive.

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