Asphalting Main Street

Published 5:46 pm Tuesday, May 28, 2019

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The redesign of Main Street nearly three decades ago included the removal of overhead utilities, the installation of brick sidewalks and granite curbs, the installation of period lampposts and carefully-selected plantings.

The Town Council, town staff and a team of volunteers that designed the work spent a great deal of time discussing the pavement that would be used, and selected two layers of brown river stone, carefully applied over asphalt. The paving, it turned out, polished the gem, creating one of the handsomest downtown streets in Virginia.

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The street held up well, but repeated utility work cuts made over time eventually led the town to reconstruct the surface.

That was done last year, and the town selected a different material, thinking it could improve on the original work. It was a disaster, as became evident within a week of its application when a cloud of dust rose above it and dark tracks from tires began appearing.

And this spring, the top of the remaining finish melted.

Town Council has now authorized the repaving of the street, and has elected to go with asphalt with brown gravel mixed in.

Interestingly, the Town Council hasn’t taken a public stand on any of this. It passed the matter off to Town Manager Brian Thrower without a vote and without public comment. An unsigned announcement on “Genuine Smithfield” stationery said Thrower and Blair Bros., the company that had done the Main Street paving work both decades ago and last year, had finalized a plan. The announcement gave no price for the work, but Thrower later said the project will cost $99,000, most of which will be paid out of the funds the town gets from VDOT for street maintenance.

The council members apparently did discuss the street with Thrower, but not in public. They chose to close the door and have a private conversation about it last week. That’s truly disappointing. There hasn’t been a more public issue in recent memory than this. Most everybody’s been talking about it — except council members.

There may well have been good reasons given during the exchange between Blair Bros. representatives and the Town Council. Unfortunately, because of the secrecy, the public isn’t privy to them. Like far too many issues, the council excludes the public, discusses its plans, and then, with no public input, announces what it will do. The thrust of it is, “This is our decision. Now accept it.”

The asphalt treatment selected will contain brownstone gravel, which ostensibly will slowly show through the black asphalt and give the street some level of brown tint that, according to the town announcement will “evolve to generally the same appearance as the prior brown pebble street finish.”

Hopefully, it will. My fear is that it will still look pretty ordinary, and ordinary was something the designers three decades ago were determined to avoid.

The asphalt will address one ongoing complaint by town workers, who have groused regularly that they couldn’t scrape snow off the street with the pebble finish. With an asphalt finish, they will now be able to pile the town’s occasional snowfalls in the parking spaces along the side of the street rather than leaving it to melt in the middle.

The Town Council’s shyness is probably understandable, if regrettable. After the paving debacle last year, it would have taken significant political courage for the council to have selected the gravel finish that made the street so strikingly attractive for the past several decades, and as you may have noticed, political courage is not abundant anywhere in the country these days. “Safe” is often the watchword in modern governance, and this was a safe decision by Town Council members.

The good news involving the decision to pave — and council members certainly realize this — is that people who were involved in the original project are dying out and memories of others will fade, so that within a few years not many people will remember what the street looked like back then, anyway.

There’s also irony in this decision. People have often thought that the finish used here on Main Street was a copy of what had been used on Duke of Gloucester Street. Not exactly. Duke of Gloucester, had an earth tone finish, but it was apparently applied differently. Now, however, Williamsburg is planning to repave Duke of Gloucester, and has chosen to copy the type of finish used here decades ago. They have carefully tested it, found it to be durable and now plan to undertake the work during the next year.

They will have a beautiful street. I hope we will as well.