Public Health & Recreation

Future Use of Contaminated Waites Wharf in Limbo

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NEWPORT, R.I. — The fate of six buildings on Waites Wharf remains in the balance.

More than seven months of back and forth have passed, and it seems that the question of demolition is still as uncertain as ever. Neighbors claim that the Thames Street parcels are sitting on a stew of toxic chemicals that, if disturbed, could harm public health.

Waites Wharf has been the home to oil companies, blacksmiths, auto-repair shops, painting and welding companies, and other businesses that generated contamination.

“My wife and I have owned property on Coddington Wharf for over 20 years,” Richard and Connie Bischoff wrote in a letter last year to Joseph Martella at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM). “While we knew that our neighbors at Waites Wharf were planning to build a 150-room hotel, that did not strike as much horror into our hearts as the notification from SAGE about the chemicals buried in the soil next door.”

The Bischoffs are referencing a 2020 site investigation report compiled by SAGE Environmental, which found that the area is contaminated with toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead, and vinyl chloride.

In a February letter to Martella, the Pawtucket-based firm responded to public concerns and assured residents that any demolition would be undertaken with the proper protocols and permissions required.

“[I]t has never been proposed that demolition will include the removal of foundations or earth work without an approved Remedial Action Work Plan (RAWP) with RIDEM,” according to the SAGE letter. “No Site work will occur, including earth work associated with demolished structure foundation removal, without a RAWP which will also include an environment monitoring plan and soil management plan.”

The applicant, Thomas Abruzese of Harbour Realty LLC, has told the Planning Board that these dilapidated buildings and underused lots are a blight on what could be a tourist boon for the city and are in themselves harmful.

At a recent Planning Board meeting, experts representing the applicant gave more testimony as to why the various lots on the demolition docket should be razed.

“If there ever was a flood event … this building would more than likely collapse and basically become waterborne debris and become a hazard to the buildings and many people in the surrounding areas,” said David Merkel, a structural engineer at Middletown-based Merk Consulting LLC.

Planning Board members are required to investigate if the demolition project would meet four requirements: the granting of a permit isn’t detrimental to the public health, safety, and general welfare of the community; the proposed demolition is consistent with the goals and policies of the city’s comprehensive land-use plan; the proposed demolition doesn’t create land with constraints to development; and the proposed demolition does no harm to the character of the immediate neighborhood.

During the March 15 meeting, some Planning Board members expressed skepticism at the idea that demolition of the buildings would be better for everyone.

“Wouldn’t you say that since we’re talking about a demolition permit tonight, that in demolishing commercial-use buildings which are currently on the property, we will be reducing our economic and commercial tourism-based businesses?” board member Paul Marshall asked.

“No, I wouldn’t. First and foremost, I mean, Newport has evolved and recycled itself so many times over the centuries, nothing remains static,” said Paige Bronk, the economic and community development manager for Explore Gorton (Conn.) who served as planning director for Newport for more than a decade, speaking on the behalf of the applicant. “There is always change … change from one building to another type of use doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a negative, it could actually be a positive in reducing constraints.”

Abruzese and his team have been arguing their case for demolition for nearly a year, and the process has yet to reach the public-comment stage. A special meeting is scheduled for March 29.

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