Waterlogged city seeks relief
PEABODY - Nearly 400 years ago, Peabody was settled as Brooksby Village, a name that reflects the area’s abundance of waterways. Here, the constant water flow helped make the city a tannery capital in the last century. But in recent decades, the intense construction around Routes 1 and 128 that turned open space into asphalt and overloaded the city’s brooks and culverts has given the city’s downtown a new name: the flooding capital of northern Massachusetts.
Now, with a little more than two months to go before he leaves office, Peabody Mayor Michael Bonfanti has presented a $15 million plan that he says will help eliminate major downtown flooding like the Oct. 4 deluge that flooded dozens of businesses and homes in Peabody Square. The proposal, which calls for Peabody to borrow the money with the hope of gaining grants to pay it back, will go before the Peabody City Council in mid-November.
“It is a defining moment,’’ said Bonfanti, who believes that the project would stimulate investment and economic growth in the square.
The proposal calls for separating the two brooks that now converge under the square before spilling out into the North River and emptying into Salem Harbor. Under the plan, one brook would be channeled into a new, 1,000-foot-long underground water culvert that would wend underneath Foster Street and Peabody Square to the mouth of the North River - while the other brook would remain untouched and less burdened by extra water flow.
The project would take two years to complete, with workers tearing up large parts of streets and sidewalks in the square. The proposal, which needs votes from at least eight of the 11 city councilors to move forward, is being supported by City Council president Anne ManningMartin and both candidates to replace Bonfanti as mayor, Councilor Edward “Ted’’ Bennencourt, and Sean Fitzgerald, a former chief of staff to Bonfanti.
“I think it’s an essential piece to the revitalization of the downtown area - to make it a destination, instead of a cut-through or a flood zone,’’ said Manning-Martin. “We need to make a commitment to our city to make these kinds of improvements so that our city can flourish, so we can improve the quality of life of all involved.’’
Downtown, where flood fatigue has set in among business owners and residents, the proposal has been well received but has generated little excitement and more than a bit of skepticism.
Some, like Alan Forbes, who owns Sports Collectibles in Peabody Square, support any improvement to cut down on the flooding but say other proposals have been discussed and then dismissed over the years.
Along soggy Foster Street, where water rose as high as 5 feet during the Oct. 4 flood, business owners like hairdresser Rose Perrino urged the city to act in order to protect lives. “I pray to God that something gets done. It’s out of control,’’ she said.
On Foster Street, Basil Simou was still assessing the damage last week, determining which machines still worked and which needed to be replaced at the dry-cleaning shop he has owned for 32 years. During that time, he says, he’s been through 12 floods, and estimates that he’s lost at least $100,000 in business. After this month’s flood, the store closed for almost a week. “This was the worst flood because we weren’t prepared,’’ said Simou.
He supports the city’s attempt to fix the flooding problem but thinks the project should begin closer to Salem. He called for workers to widen and dredge the North River first to allow greater flow into Salem Harbor.
“They have to start from Salem and work backwards. That would solve the problem,’’ said Simou.
Bonfanti wants to build the underground culvert first, and he said the project has been reviewed by design consultants, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We’re trying to use the best-educated minds to direct us,’’ he said.
The mayor and other city officials say the city has to act so it can rebuild the downtown economy. Sixty years ago, chains like Woolworth’s and Kresge’s lined the downtown.
But the department store anchors vanished once area shopping centers were built, like Peabody’s own Northshore Mall.
In recent decades, salons, pizzerias, and dollar stores have set down roots in the square, but at least one-third of its commercial space is vacant. City officials like Bonfanti and community development director Karen Sawyer say private investment will only occur if the city invests first.
“We’re trying to lay the foundation to open up the downtown to private development. We recognize we need to invest in the infrastructure to get others to invest,’’ said Sawyer.
Since 1956, the city has conducted nine studies to determine how best to fix the problem at Peabody Square, where the two brooks often push as much as 4 feet of water into the street during high tides, when the North River can’t handle the massive rush of water and overflows.
And over the last 15 years, Peabody Square has flooded six times, making life miserable each occasion for about 100 downtown businesses and 1,000 residents.
Bonfanti, who took office almost 10 years ago, has lobbied for state and federal funds to fix the flooding in the square, where 25,000 cars pass through each weekday.
Over the years he’s given tours to the likes of Senators John F. Kerry, and Edward M. Kennedy. He even publicly accused then-governor Mitt Romney of breaking a promise to the city, after Romney took $5.7 million of proposed flood mitigation aid to the city off the table in 2004.
Since then, the city has received about $5 million in state and federal grants, and in recent years spent about $6 million to clean and dredge brooks to improve water flow.
But when the Oct. 4 storm dumped 4.55 inches of rain on Peabody in a three-hour period, it flooded dozens of homes and businesses in the square.
More than a week after the flood, piles of ruined furniture were stacked on the sidewalks. In the shadow of City Hall, Carly Kershaw stood in a damp parking lot and shook her head while she described her routine when Peabody Square floods.
In order to get to work, the emergency room nurse dons a pair of rubber boots, walks down the staircase from her condo (since the building’s elevator does not work during floods), then slogs through a foot of water in the lobby before sloshing toward her car.
Last week, the waters reached her car and she learned that the insurance company considered it a total loss.
“It’s very frustrating,’’ she said.
Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com.