Q: When you turn into the Lehigh Parkway from S. 12th Street approaching the stone wall, traffic cones are set out, making the road one lane. This continues for the length of the wall, and the bridle path on the other side of the wall is closed off. It has been this way for quite a while. What is going on? I don't see any work being done.
— Al Hall, via email, Sept. 3, 2012
Q: So what happened to the Little Lehigh Parkway wall-repair project we read about last year? I thought that the old wall was in imminent danger of collapse at any minute. Now the fence that restricted the road to one lane is gone, two-way traffic is restored, and you can walk and drive by as you please. Did the wall heal itself?
— Charlie Himmelberger, Allentown, Jan. 15, 2013
A: The gorgeous stone wall gracing Park Drive at the east end of Little Lehigh Parkway was found to be leaning to the north, away from the road and toward the creek, a decade or more ago, according to city Public Works Director Rich Young. Stabilization work done at that time put the brakes on further movement.
But it wasn't a permanent solution, and last year parks employees noticed that a vertical crack in one part of the wall seemed to be widening a bit, interim Parks Superintendent Rick Holtzman said.
There was no immediate danger, but officials thought it prudent to investigate further, not only to preserve the 1930s-era wall, but also to ensure public safety, as the wall provides structural support for Park Drive, said Young, himself an engineer.
The city hired Pennoni Associates for a $25,000 engineering study to determine what the long-term fix should be. As is often the case, the engineers came up with several proposals with various sticker prices attached, though none really qualifies as an economy model. Stone work does not come cheap.
The road was narrowed to a single lane westbound in April, not for repairs, but for the study, Young said. Two-way traffic was restored in November, but the barriers in today's photo remain as a precaution. "It's just for security … we still don't want to get traffic right up against the wall," he said.
Before we turn to possible solutions, let's put it in reverse for a bit of a background journey.
The wall was built as part of the Works Progress Administration, the federal program intended to steer people out of the unemployment line and dig the economy out of the enormous pothole of the Great Depression. Though controversial at the time — there were shovel-leaner jokes, and critics referred to WPA as "We Poke Along" — stone walls from the WPA helped create Allentown's enviable parks system. The walls can be found in city parks including Fountain, Irving Street, Jordan and Union Terrace. The Parkway wall was built during 1935-36.
Solid as they are, even stone walls require proper maintenance. When the Park Drive wall, which rises as high as 14 feet on the park side, was found to be leaning slightly, a trench was dug at its roadside base and filled with "flowable fill," a concrete product that sets softer than construction-grade concrete so that it can be excavated if necessary, Young said.
Though the wall hasn't moved since then, the engineering study showed that work needs to be done to preserve the wall.
"It's something that needs to be addressed," Young said.
"I don't think it's an emergency," he said — the wall is not in danger of imminent collapse — but like PennDOT's structurally deficient bridges, repairs are needed sooner rather than later.
The Pennoni plan with the inside track so far calls for concrete buttresses to be added on the park side of the wall, Young said. Holtzman said three buttresses would be needed, and they would be faced with stone to blend with the wall's appearance. The wall would be repointed and the portion between the buttresses would be rebuilt, he said.
The very preliminary cost estimate? "The $500,000 to $600,000 range," Young said.
Ouch. Still, the city doesn't want to go with a stripped-down model such as steel beam supports that would short-cut the wall's appearance.