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Grant Street’s bricks anything but grand

By Jim Ritchie
Sunday, February 26, 2006

The stately bricks covering Grant Street since the city’s Renaissance II era in the 1980s soon might be replaced with black asphalt.

The bricks are not staying in place, forcing continual repairs, ugly patches and a dilemma about whether to spend tens of millions of dollars fixing the underlying problem, or replace the bricks with asphalt, a more economical solution. The actual cost of repairs is undetermined.

“That’s going to be a catastrophe someday, because they’re letting it go,” said John Gipko, of Mt. Lebanon, who drives the street regularly. “I would take my daughter to work that way, and every day we would go by and see the bricks getting looser and looser.”

The problem lies with a layer of asphalt between the bricks and the street’s concrete base, city Public Works Director Guy Costa said. The asphalt softens when it warms, allowing the bricks to move, and the problem worsens with heavy traffic. About 20,000 vehicles use Grant Street daily, including buses.

“I know they wanted a grand boulevard, but unfortunately the bricks aren’t holding up,” Costa said.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, long has complained about the street’s failing condition and thinks the city should install a concrete road. The city has spent more than $22 million on the brick street, according to Ferlo, a former city councilman.

“Please, someone pull the plug on this costly and wasteful mess,” Ferlo said. “Dig the street back up in quadrants and replace it with solid concrete slabs.”

Grant Street is steeped in history. Named for British Maj. James Grant, who was defeated in a 1758 battle with the French at the site, the street ran along the base of Grant’s Hill, an 80-foot hill that once filled the Downtown area. The street was mostly residential until 1884, when the Allegheny County Courthouse was built, starting a transformation into the hub of Pittsburgh’s Downtown government district.

Once paved with sturdy Belgian blocks of stone, Grant Street underwent a change in the 1980s after local leaders formed the Grant Street Block Club.

“The idea was to come up with a way to make Grant Street look like a street on which our most monumental buildings are placed,” said Arthur Ziegler Jr., president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. “It was a street of monumental buildings.”

The long-lasting stone blocks were replaced with less-dependable asphalt and topped with bricks.

“They came in my administration, or at the end of (Mayor Richard) Caliguiri’s,” said former Mayor Sophie Masloff, who held office from 1988 to 1994. “I think it stands to reason that it’s been at least 14 to 15 years, and with the elements, traffic and the beating it takes, anything would deteriorate.”

Complicating the problem at the intersection of Grant Street and Fifth Avenue is a water-line break that may have caused the road to sink. Costa, who wants to evaluate the street block by block, plans to look at that intersection in the spring. He said the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority would pay for water-related damage.

But he is faced with finding an affordable solution for the rest of the street. The city has little money to repair roads and bridges.

The city has started replacing the bricks with a 4-inch layer of asphalt, Costa said. That work is scheduled to resume in spring on a section of Grant Street between Liberty and 11th Street.

Costa wants to continue replacing the bricks to Seventh Avenue — which would cover roughly one-fifth of the street with asphalt.

Jim Ritchie can be reached at or (412) 320-7933.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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