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Two sides trip over hex block repair cost

Old Northeast neighborhood leaders and the city differ on costs to repair hex block sidewalks vs. concrete.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Alone, it's just a six-sided piece of concrete, plate-sized and made to be trod underfoot.

String a bunch together, and you have a hexagonal block sidewalk -- hex sidewalks, for short. In the Historic Old Northeast, such walkways go with tree-lined brick streets, detached garages, finished oak and the tang of wood smoke on damp January nights.

Tinged with romance and history, the hex sidewalks are viewed as reason for challenging City Hall if it appears the signature neighborhood element is in peril.

That might be the case now, some residents say.

They worry that the city might be pricing the cost of hex block repair out of reach, which in turn may discourage repair of hex block sections, promote plain concrete strips and fail to protect a historic resource.

"I don't know what the push is, really, to gut all our hex sidewalks and put in concrete," said Steve Kipp, who leads the Old Northeast's neighborhood design review committee.

City officials, meanwhile, say they have been able to reduce the cost of hex block repair to property owners.

In a memo to City Council member Virginia Littrell, city engineer Mike Connors said it is hoped the reduction "will lead to the additional property owners' decisions to repair with (hex block)."

At the issue's core is cost of "ribbon" concrete vs. that of hex blocks.

Kipp has researched a series of work orders and has compiled figures he says show hex block repairs are less expensive than standard concrete. The city disagrees.

Said Chris Eaton, the neighborhood association president: "It's a hot issue."

But maybe not yet hotly adversarial.

"I think it's only a matter of having a conversation" to clear up problems, Littrell said.

Still, she wonders why all hex block sidewalks aren't repaired for free, as are concrete walks.

In his memo, Connors wrote that repairs of both hex blocks and standard concrete are free up to 100 square feet. Hex block repairs of more than 100 square feet require owners to pay the difference between the cost of repair for hex block vs. concrete, Connors wrote.

The difference is $1.83 per square foot, according to city figures, based on what officials say is a $3.17 average cost per square foot of concrete vs. $5 per square foot of hex block.

Kipp's figures are at odds.

He said his research revealed a $3.72 per square foot cost for hex block, $5.50 for standard concrete.

To help resolve the issue, Kipp has asked for an audit of city sidewalk repair costs. Meanwhile, he suggests that residents considering hex block repairs contact the neighborhood association before contacting the city "to get a better understanding of what they're getting into."

The neighborhood's older character is a particular point of pride. Its application to be included on the National Register of Historic Places was approved in Tallahassee recently and is on its way to consideration at the national level.

Federal standards have described hex block sidewalks as important to the historic designation, said Kate Hoffman, co-chairwoman of the neighborhood's historic preservation committee.

"They certainly give more of a historic feel to the neighborhood," Eaton said.

The motif's importance is suggested in other ways. Hex block images adorn neighborhood street signs and the monuments defining neighborhood boundaries.

When the design review committee examines new construction proposals, it always emphasizes that hex sidewalks be preserved, Kipp said.

"I think we've all made it clear, the (City) Council has made it clear, that we want hex blocks," said Littrell, who lives in the neighborhood.

Historic Old Northeast is not the only neighborhood with the walkways.

The Old Southeast has an officially designated hex block preservation district, which affords the sidewalks some special attention and a measure of protection.

There are perhaps 100 miles of hex block sidewalk throughout St. Petersburg, according to city records. Most of it was installed during the 20th century's first half, said city historic preservation planner Rick Smith.

Many of the blocks were made at Farmer Concrete Works, a company that employed many African-Americans who lived in the 22nd Street S neighborhood.

"Obviously, I would like to see (the sidewalks) preserved," said Hoffman, the historic committee co-chairwoman. Like other residents, including Kipp, she would like to see a low-key approach taken in solving the problem.

"I'm not an accountant," Kipp said. He said his figures might not provide all the answers, but might be a starting point for a conversation.

Said Hoffman: "Let's just talk about what's doable and not doable."

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