This commentary is by Dave Gram, a longtime Vermont journalist and Montpelier resident.
Montpelier is in an abusive relationship with its rivers, and we need to get out.
Time and time again in the quarter-millennium since people of European ancestry first settled near the confluence of the North Branch and Winooski main stem, floodwaters have wrought devastation on the town. Time and time again we have mopped up, rebuilt and hoped the next time won’t come soon.
With more floods assured and more frequent floods likely, it is time to withdraw from the riverbanks and pray for peace.
Before Montpelier rebuilds, we must redesign.
One idea making the rounds would call for filling in basements, turning what are now the first floors of buildings to parking and elevating businesses by 8 or 10 feet above the current street level.
This would require huge retrofitting. A flood like 1927’s might still cause extensive damage. In the end, a half-measure attempt to “negotiate” with the rivers likely would bring a host of esthetic and practical challenges that could look for decades or centuries like they had been handled poorly.
A better idea would be to move the business district uphill to the area around the college green. With the Vermont College of Fine Arts a thing of the past, it is time to devote its land and buildings to the fine art of building a town.
Imagine a new bridge and road connecting the business district from the top of the College Street hill to the top of the Berlin Street hill, and on to Exit 7 of Interstate 89.
Imagine new housing along terraces on the bank above Court Street, just east of the Statehouse, and the one between Memorial Drive and the National Life campus. Imagine these and a series of discrete neighborhoods on the city’s hills linked to one another, the Statehouse, the business district and the riverside parks by a system of aerial trams.
What’s now the downtown should be given over to parkland and black walnut-dominated forest planted with flood resiliency and the nutty food source in mind. Let’s figure out the best cold-weather diluvial ecology and put it to work.
At the center of the park, along the rivers’ confluence, could be a newly developed swimming and small-boat-launching area for better or warmer days. Imagine picnic tables and food trucks, maybe a bandstand, all put in place with flood risk and ease of flight in mind.
What we wouldn’t be risking would be people’s homes or entire small-business livelihoods — or their leaky fuel tanks — floating downstream.
It’s all a nice dream. But it immediately would crash into the walls of capitalism, the ideology of property and the demands of mortgage bankers.
But when those things are requiring you to do something as stupid as rebuild as was and wait for the next flood, perhaps it’s time to question whether we can continue to make them our top priority.
Perhaps it is time to figure out a new way to live in harmony with our environment. Here, government may have to be the answer. Let’s say we send a message to Washington that says, “You built whole towns in Nevada and New Mexico to launch the nuclear age. How about you help us rebuild as the model of how to meet a new national goal: climate resiliency?”
The design changes mentioned here obviously are just ideas. What’s needed is a community-wide set of planning deliberations — a charette; look it up if you like — this fall and winter to chart a new course.
People sometimes wonder about our legislators’ aggressiveness in trying to fight climate change. Vermont is a tiny sliver of the problem, we’re told, and any “solution” here would have the impact of a drop in the ocean.
That’s not the way to think about it. Rather, our situation in this state, and in this tiny, flood-ravaged (again) state capital, has given us too much knowledge about what the stakes are.
We recognize — and now must act on this recognition — that we can’t keep doing things the way we have been.
Big change is needed, unless we want to be punished again and again for failing to bring it.