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Shoring up the walls

Crews work to save riverfront buildings in Wilmington

WILMINGTON—Two buildings on South Main Street are in danger of tumbling into the Deerfield River.

Portions of the riverbank across the water by The Crafts Inn have fallen in, courtesy of Tropical Storm Irene, which damaged the flood walls downstream of the Route 9 bridge on Aug. 28, 2011.

Local architect Joseph Cincotta has identified the two buildings as critical to the six-part multi-phase repair project to rehabilitate the river and flood walls: The Cady & Dugan building, which before Irene housed artist Skip Morrow’s gallery, and the Village Pub, owned by Mary Jane and Raymond Finnegan.

According to one preliminary engineering report, “This wall also supports the foundations of 7 South Main St., the footings for the posts at 3 South Main St. and may support a larger section of the foundation at 3 South Main St.

“The wall also provides stability along this stretch of river to the edge of the Deerfield River, near the town park and several buildings downstream. Without immediate repair, there is a strong potential that the wall will continue to fail causing significant damage to the existing structures.”

Historically, downtown Wilmington has grown up along the Deerfield, as previous generations built retaining walls along portions of the river, creating a river environment described as “channelized” (see sidebar).

However, those walls and the Route 9 bridge form a choke point, which constrains water flowing through downtown.

Cincotta, principal of LineSync Architecture of Wilmington, contractor Gary Urbinati, and engineer Tim Hardy of Hardy Engineering in Burlington started working on the project the first week of July.

According to Cincotta, the damage in the downstream area acts like dominos. If one area fails, it will make the remaining damage worse.

The construction crew repaired the flood wall banking The Crafts Inn on July 7. The crew also removed a gravel dam about 200 feet downstream of the bridge.

According to Cincotta, the dam stands about 3 feet high. The dam yielded six truckloads.

The state Agency of Natural Resources normally forbids removing gravel from riverbeds but has made an exception.

The project also includes repairing the Route 9 bridge abutment cap.

Although the bridge is part of the federal and state highway system, the town will pay for the repairs in this case, said Cincotta. Debris within the floodwaters “scrubbed the concrete off,” he said.

Patching and pointing the mortar under the River Bank Park at the corner of West and South Main streets is also on the to-do list. The park is the site of a pergola designed by Cincotta.

The scope of the final part of the river work Cincotta calls “troubling.”

Farther down South Main Street sits a 100-foot span of stone walls and green space. The 1938 flood washed away a building that occupied the area, said Cincotta. The town highway department repaired this portion of the wall after Irene chewed away a portion.

To shore up the wall, crews armored it with large boulders filled in with smaller loose stone, he said.

But Cincotta was alarmed by an evaluation from Todd Menees, a river engineer for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

“When that wall goes, South Main Street goes, according to Todd,” said Cincotta.

Cincotta’s project plan had involved making “exploratory holes” in the wall to ascertain if the wall sits on dirt or sound ledge. Based on conversations with the town highway department, however, Cincotta feels the repairs will hold.

But the current base of rough stones creates too much turbulence and will “boil the water” during a flood, he said. This base will require smoothing out, he added.

Price tag

Cincotta has priced the project at $35,000, which represents a “tight” proposal and does not cover all surprises that could crop up during construction, he said.

Funders include the nonprofit Friends of the Valley and property owners Cady and Dugan, and the Village Pub’s Mary Jane Finnegan.

Original estimates for the project ran between $80,000 and $100,000, said Cincotta.

According to Cincotta, if he and the team did not pursue the work now, and instead went through a municipal process of design/bid/build, the town would still be waiting for work to start, no sooner than October.

Cincotta estimates the buildings would not have survived the year.

“Most people don’t notice an emergency until it ends up on the TV news,” he said.

The timeline worried Cincotta, prompting concern that led to “grousing” on his part, he said.

The grumbling, however, paid off when a community member pointed Cincotta to Wardsboro-based contractor Gary Urbinati, who bills himself as the guy who takes on projects “no one else wants to do.”

Urbinati’s construction projects have ranged from river work, to schools, churches, libraries, emergency rooms, and naval bases.

Allowing the buildings to fall into the Deerfield “would have made the town look stupid,” Cincotta said, adding that the town is in a position to help itself now.

Sketch and plan

Urbinati granted a reluctant interview, saying that other people in town were doing more important work.

“Get in, get it done, get out,” said Urbinati about the crew’s two-week project timeline. “Get the buildings running and keep the tax base solid.”

The old stone walls along South Main Street, estimated to be 100 years old, “held up fairly well” during Irene’s flooding, he said.

Urbinati thinks that some of the walls’ damage, however, came from “back pressure” caused when water flows from behind the wall pushing outwards.

The walls were built on a ledge outcrop in the river, he said, as were some of the basements in the Main Street buildings. During the flood, water would have followed seams in the rock adding pressure on the flood walls.

“For that amount of water and what went on there, the town stood up pretty good,” he said.

Cincotta said the approach to this repair project differs from that of similar projects.

Instead of going to an engineer first, he retained a builder on the ground floor to assess the damage, suggest a solution, and advise on materials. The process also worked in a team model, engaging everyone from architect to engineer to builder in a continuous conversation.

This process, Cincotta feels, helped develop a more cost-effective project.

Cincotta calls this method a design/build rather than the conventional design/bid/build process that most municipalities use. The design/build process will also allow the team to revise the plans “on the fly,” he said.

Cincotta and Urbinati met in early July. Cincotta also gathered opinions from state river engineers, state highway officials, and the Army Corps of Engineers. He said everyone he spoke with has reinforced the solutions in the project.

On one recent day, Urbinati, Cincotta, and LineSync employee Ryan Edwards met at South Main to assess needed repairs. On the spot, they sketched a plan to repair the wall.

Cincotta, who opened LineSync Architecture in 1988, said he wants to change the conventional view of architects, a view that limits their role to the design of buildings. He hopes people will view the profession as a bridge between a client’s aspirations and goals materialized. Architects can orchestrate projects by hiring the engineers and contractors perfect for a project, he said.

Cincotta, a self-described “New York City boy,” and his wife, Julie Lineberger, who he described as “an L.A. woman,” never dreamed they could live where they played in southern Vermont. But Cincotta started taking summer jobs in the area and the couple decided to live in Vermont and vacation in the city.

In some ways, admitted Cincotta, settling in Vermont was “dumb,” because a Harvard University-trained architect could make much more money elsewhere. But he feels grateful to live in Wilmington. He said he cares about his community.

“I really feel that this is my way of thanking a lot of people,” he said. “It makes us feel good to be useful.”

Permits and Shumlin

Wilmington Town Manager Scott Murphy said the town has organized repairing the damage along South Main and the Craft Inn’s bank for months.

Murphy said the town had asked Stevens & Associates, an architectural and engineering firm based in Brattleboro, for an assessment, which the town paid for with a grant. Gretchen Havreluk, in charge of coordinating post-Irene resources for the community and town, obtained the funding from the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

Stevens & Associates returned a preliminary assessment. The next step, design, would cost about $10,000, said Murphy.

Since design traditionally runs 10 percent of the total cost, the town projected that the undertaking would total $80,000 to $100,000. This equalled a high bottom line, he said.

In a separate interview, Bob Stevens of Stevens & Associates said the project probably would not cost as much as the traditional estimate.

The project then switched gears to Cincotta.

Murphy said the town would have completed the work in the spring. Menees, of the Vermont Department of Conversation, had sent the town a permit for the river work in May, but the Vermont Division of Fire Safety wanted to see a detailed safety plan because the threatened Village Pub building also housed residents.

“Pulling in the key players is also difficult in the state,” said Murphy, who said that different state entities want different information and set meetings at different times.

The work took off after Governor Peter Shumlin visited Wilmington for the Preservation Trust of Vermont’s annual conference on June 8. The governor looked at the “hole in the wall” and put the town in touch with state employees, Murphy said.

Within a week, the town had almost all the permits, he noted. “With the governor, things happen quickly,” he said.

Murphy said Wilmington will always weigh municipal spending and potential flooding. The town recently completed repairs and upgrades to a flood-prone municipal parking lot off West Main Street.

There were concerns about sinking town funds into the lot, he said, but while some are concerned about what might happen during the next flood, the town also needs parking spaces.

“Hopefully we won’t have another event like Irene in our lifetime,” Murphy said.

Wilmington has worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Long-Term Community Recovery (LTCR) process. Murphy said FEMA employees came with great suggestions but limited funding, said Murphy.

Wilmington and Waterbury were the only towns in Vermont to qualify for LTCR program, which helps severely damaged communities recover and plan after disasters.

Meanwhile, Murphy prays for no rain.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #160 (Wednesday, July 11, 2012).

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