Moving On Up

Fall/Winter22

Rising Water in Warren Prompts Redevelopment and Relocation Plans

By Annie Sherman

Floodwaters inundate Market Street during a king tide.
Photograph by Janet Freedman

The second smallest town in the smallest state in the country has a big problem: water. High tides, storm surge, and rising seas are inundating Warren’s vulnerable Market Street neighborhood, turning an important business and residential district into a pool of saltwater. Meanwhile, Metacom Avenue’s bustling commercial thoroughfare acts like a concrete waterslide during heavy rainfall, washing pollutants into the Kickemuit River.

These water woes will only worsen here as the global climate changes, experts warn. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that tidal waters will swell one foot by 2035, while increasing storm events will bring more rain to saturated shorelines. The University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute has extensively mapped Market Street’s flooding threats. These maps show the feet of roadway that are and will be underwater in different storm events and with future sea level rise, as well as the number of structures that would be damaged.

To mitigate, Warren administrators are crafting an ambitious plan to holistically address water quality and climate change challenges while promoting economic development. They have reimagined Metacom Avenue into a conceptual higher-density, mixed-use, central business district and eliminated its 1960s unattractive concrete jungle, while solving myriad issues simultaneously.

“Why are we doing this? Because climate change is a real thing, and there are serious implications to what’s going to happen here,” said Bob Rulli, Warren’s director of planning and community development, in a July public workshop. “Warren is one of the lowest-lying towns in Rhode Island, and Market Street is one of the lowest-lying areas of Warren. At the same time, Metacom Avenue is one of the town’s highest areas, is underutilized, and has potential for redevelopment.”

Saltwater from Belcher Cove seeps into backyards and up storm drains during tidal surges like this one in 2021.

Current conditions are forcing the town to adapt to water coming from all directions. Sunny-day flooding surprises drivers, forcing them to navigate through saltwater that gushes up through Market Street’s storm drains, says Wenley Ferguson, Save The Bay’s director of habitat restoration.

Storms, in the meantime, send torrents of rainwater carrying harmful nitrogen and phosphorus run-off down Metacom Avenue and into storm drains. It’s hard to keep up, Ferguson says, especially since it’s happening more frequently—up to a dozen times per year now, versus a few annual floods previously.

“[Market Street] is a highly developed commercial district in Warren, with small businesses that work with automotive and [furniture] refinishing, so the storage of materials could be hazardous, which is even more of a concern with flooding,” Ferguson says. “Plus, any place we can do stormwater retrofits [on Metacom] is an important piece of prevention of stormwater infiltration, instead of allowing it to run untreated into the Kickemuit River, which is impaired.”

Considering all these threats, the Market to Metacom Adaptation and Economic Development Plan proposes to buy vulnerable, flood-prone properties and relocate the displaced residents to a redeveloped Metacom Avenue, where retail, restaurants, and mixed-income housing would offer environmental refugees safety out of the floodplain.

Supplemental public transportation would provide mobility for those without a car; greater proximity of services closer to Metacom Avenue would allow increased pedestrianism and biking; and stormwater-retention systems would divert and filter excess water, all of which are proven environmental saviors.

The plan would be the first of its kind in the Ocean State, and Rulli says they are in the early stages of this 10- to 20-year project, which includes revamping the town’s comprehensive plan. Arnold Robinson, regional planning director at Fuss & O’Neill, a Providence-based engineering and planning firm leading Warren’s initiative, says,

“There are two paths. The first: we change nothing. Towns, state agencies, and utilities take no action to prepare for climate change impacts. And we see an increase in frequency and severity to historical averages of precipitation and storm events … In 2050, for a no-action scenario, Market Street is flooded every day.”

The costs of doing nothing are staggering, Robinson adds, including insurance losses to property owners and insurers, loss of commercial buildings and their contributions to the community, displacement of businesses, and environmental pollution and cleanup, as well as municipal financial impacts like lost tax revenue and the cost of repair or replacement of infrastructure.

By 2100, he says, more than 300 Warren residents would be displaced, 201 housing units would be lost, and 255 properties and buildings would be flooded. Doing nothing would cost more than $95 million in lost business revenue and $38 million in damages to buildings from flooding alone, he adds.

“We can’t just draw a line on the map and say ‘this is where the flood will go. Here is sea level rise and storm surge; here is the level of road damage, environmental damage, and flooding,’” Robinson says. “The precedents for no action, well we’ve seen them. They’re Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and the Louisiana Bayou communities that I think of as being like Warren, that are built up against marshlands, and are now only accessible by boat.” 

 

The precedents for no action, well we’ve seen them. They’re Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and the Louisiana Bayou communities that I think of as being like Warren.

He says the second scenario imagines a different future, one that predicts and accommodates this surplus water and galvanizes the community around a new central business district. A $122,500 Southeast New England Program grant is helping them get started, examining the Ocean State Job Lot site on Metacom Avenue because it’s the largest parcel with the most potential.

Embracing this transformation would help Warren optimize commercial, residential, and retail uses, as well as institutional uses, like a performing arts center in collaboration with an area university. All of this could create a welcoming village center, says Paul Attemann of Union Studio Architecture & Community Design, which drafted the community’s experimental future.

The conceptual designs incorporate three-story, mixed-use buildings adjacent to the street, with retail or restaurant space on the ground floor and office or residential space above, explains Arica Thornton of Union Studio Architecture & Community Design.

Parking would be in back, creating fewer curb cuts while offering pedestrian-friendly passages that make it more conducive to walking or biking, as well as plazas and shared green space between buildings. Considering stormwater management and sea level rise was paramount, she adds, so rather than the parking lots becoming seas of asphalt, there would be room for landscaped areas and trees, which would create a comfortable environment with lots of shade.

“This might set the stage for other parcels along Metacom Avenue to take a similar step. This is only one parcel along the entire corridor, but if you can envision one after another with an integrated approach, it defines Metacom Avenue as a destination, rather than a thoroughfare,” Attemann says. “We have tried to include as many opportunities as possible for green space and open space to allow for stormwater management. But it’s a tough balance to transform a large parking lot into a walkable, safe and pedestrian-friendly place to live and work. We want to improve what’s existing.”

Town council president and Water Street business owner Keri Cronin agrees that they need to fix what they have, though their options are limited in a community that is surrounded by water. She says she’s lucky that her business hasn’t flooded, but she lives only a few blocks from Market Street, where the flooding is so bad that the road is impassable at high tide. Given that neighborhood’s vulnerability, and Metacom Avenue’s potential, she says it is ripe for redevelopment. She says they want to “accommodate more pedestrian- and bike-friendly planning into any future development. With forward-thinking ideas, and responding to the climate, at first [it] can seem overwhelming, and the cost attached can seem so high. But here, the cost would be even higher if we didn’t think in these terms and make these really bold decisions to plan this way,” she says. “That old strip-mall model needs to go.”

Targeting the town’s most susceptible neighborhoods and relocating Warren residents in high-risk areas to another area within Warren is a lofty goal. And even Cronin says it’s not a slam dunk. But Rulli says it’s an important and urgent exercise in education, resilience, and economic development.

“We create value by amending the zoning to allow for more density [on Metacom], which in turn creates more property tax, and we can earn interest on that. Is it going to solve the problem entirely? No. But we can be much more proactive and get ahead of this, knowing that 2035 is just 14 years from now,” Rulli says. “This is not a 100% solution. But I think we are way ahead in comparison to other communities in the region by taking this approach. When there is a hurricane and a building collapses, people instantaneously react, and they can comprehend the significance of that. When we talk about six inches of sea level rise, it’s like watching a pot boil, and people don’t get it, until it happens. So, we needed to start with ‘this is as bad as it can get.’ Because this isn’t [happening] 100 years from now. This is 14 years from now.”

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