Riverfront renewal project in Westerly aims to improve Main Street

by Ryan Blessing

WESTERLY — Some of the paved lots up and down Westerly’s Main Street could one day give way to “greenspace” that invigorates more of the downtown and reduces stormwater pollution.

It’s part of Westerly Resilient Riverfront Renewal, a green stormwater infrastructure project for Westerly’s downtown corridor involving a public-private partnership and led by the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District.

The vision for the project, which kicked off with a stormwater funding workshop in 2021, is to convert seas of pavement into greenscape that “provide a better place for people, pollinators, and birds, improving walkability and economic activity along Main Street, while also improving water and air quality and reducing flooding,” according to Town Planner Nancy Letendre.

“There are many layers to the redevelopment of Main Street, both on the river side as well as across Main Street,” Letendre said. “We’re in a position right now where we’re trying to get started with the most pressing.”

That work involves what Letendre called a demonstration project to take place at 107 Main St., a lot across the street from McQuade’s Marketplace and adjacent to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s public boat launch site.

The property owner, Wayne Ritter, has plans to reduce the amount of impervious surface on the lot, converting it from a parking lot to “a more tactile use, bringing in food trucks and other event-type activities during the season and bringing more people downtown,” Letendre said.

The town has used Rhode Island Department of Transportation funds to hire engineering and landscape architecture firm Fuss & O’Neill to develop a conceptual plan for greenspace infrastructure. The firm updated the Westerly Planning Board on its work Tuesday and Letendre plans to meet Thursday with a representative from the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District and Ritter to complete an application package for development review by the Planning Board. The review is anticipated to take place in May, according to planning documents.

Fuss & O’Neill landscape architects Beth Kirmmse and Katherine McCombs provided an overview of the project to date.

The stormwater workshop and subsequent work led to the completion in 2022 of a Stormwater Master Plan with funding from the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program.

“It allowed us to take the great work done through the stormwater workshops and take it to the next step,” Kirmmse said. “How to manage stormwater along the entire corridor on Main Street.”

The stormwater management work prompted the team to look at creating a streetscape and also to reshape traffic circulation patterns, she said.

RIDOT makes funding eligible for projects that aim to improve “impaired” bodies of water, including the Pawcatuck River, by reducing the amount of bacteria that enters the river.

“We looked at how the money that’s available to improve stormwater and reduce flooding on Main Street be used to accomplish other things,” Kirmmse said.

Work to develop the food truck park would commence in the summer, according to the project timeline.

Kirmmse said Fuss & O’Neill would be back before the Planning Board in July as well for permitting drawings for seven additional properties. Funding for the work will come from the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank and Southern New England Estuary Program, Kirmmse said.

“The other seven properties will be looking to move into construction next spring,” Kirmmse said.

Properties that agree to participate in the project also agree to install “green” infrastructure in order to abate stormwater. Installation is covered or matched by RIDOT funding.

The project’s coverage area extends along Main Street from the Broad Street intersection to the Beach Street split, and includes a portion of Union Street. It identifies about 30 “participating properties” and another nine potential participants.

In order to receive RIDOT funding, individual property owners must sign a maintenance easement, Kirmmse said.

The property owners are able to reduce stormwater on their sites using grant money and also contribute to the project “by re-shaping their parking lots or re-thinking circulation on their lots, doing ancillary planting that will complement the green infrastructure planting,” Kirmmse said. “There are property owners in Westerly stepping forward to participate with their own funding.”

Letendre said the Planning Department would gather written certification from property owners that participate in the program as the process moves forward, but that the office was not yet in receipt of such agreements.

“It will be public as each aspect comes before the board for review and approval,” Letendre told the Planning Board.

The green infrastructure work is primarily to detain and filter the stormwater, McCombs said. But the side or additional benefits are many.

“It improves water and air quality, it conserves water and allows for local use of water,” she said. “It has lots of economic benefits, like reducing the burden on traditional municipal water and sewer systems.”

The streetscape changes also enhance pedestrian safety and make the area more inviting, she said.

“Just the attractiveness of the greenspace and the planted areas along the street increases the attractiveness of the entire corridor,” she said.

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