In the town where the first shot of the Revolutionary War was fired, there are signs of a modern-day battle.

Credit: Stephanie Leydon/WGBH News

A Street Fight In Lexington Pits Preservation Against Accessibility

June 15, 2017

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In the town where the first shot of the Revolutionary War was fired, there are signs of a modern-day battle: lawn signs featuring an ominous looking bulldozer that read “Save Lexington Center.”    

“They were planning literally to take everything from one side of the street to the other and start new,” said Mark Connor, a local architect.

At issue are the red brick sidewalks that line both sides of Lexington center. As part of a plan to overhaul the road — and improve safety and accessibility — the town planned to add a strip of concrete to the all-brick expanse. It might already be a done deal if Connor hadn’t shown up at a Town Meeting and set off a battle cry.

“I just raised my hand and asked why are we getting rid of the brick sidewalks?” recalled Connor.

Two factions soon formed in town: one defending the plan to add concrete to the sidewalks, the other making the case that bricks, like the carefully preserved Colonial-era homes around town, represent an important moment in the town’s history.  

“The 1960s is when cars exploded,” said Connor. “They were building malls and our town was threatened by the Burlington Mall, which is only a couple of miles away. So, the town fathers got together and they brought a group of designers together to come up with a way to compete with that.”

The result is a wide expanse of sidewalk lined with trees and dotted with cafes, benches and pedestrians. Connor says Lexington Center has many of the same design elements found in world famous promenades, including Paris’ Champs-D’Elysees. The bricks, he says, unify the space and make it unique. 

 “This is New York. This is Belmont Center,” he said, flipping through photos of communities and outdoor malls with brick and concrete sidewalks. “It’s just a hodgepodge of materials. It doesn’t have any continuity.”

What those modern brick and cement sidewalks do have is a kind of accessibility Michael Martignetti says Lexington needs. He’s in Lexington Center daily, but pays a price in the vibrations that rattle his wheelchair as he navigates the brick sidewalk.

“The problem is that day after day of this kind of jostling and vibration often causes nerve damage, chiropractic issues, medical problems,” said Martignetti, who sometimes navigates his wheelchair along the street to avoid the sidewalk.

Martignetti serves on Lexington’s Commission on Disability, which recommended adding a concrete strip to the sidewalk.

“The concrete walkway would be near the stores and the rest of this very large area would be all brick,” explained Martignetti. “We thought it was a great compromise.”

Connor is advocating another compromise: flat tightly-bonded bricks that research from the University of Pittsburgh shows can create a surface as smooth as concrete. It’s a more expensive option than using concrete and Lexington town engineers are now calculating the exact price.

The issue is likely to again end up before Town Meeting. And Michael Martignetti hopes if the town ultimately replaces old bricks with new ones, that the preservationists are right and that surface will be a smooth one. After a lifetime of navigating bricks, however, he longs for something concrete.

“We’re hoping what they hope comes true,” said Martignetti, “but we’re skeptical.”


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