Blast past: A Warren warning

Main Street in Warren, R.I., viewed from Town Hall. (Postcard)

Main Street in Warren, R.I., viewed from Town Hall. (Postcard)

During Saturday’s preservation conference in Warren, while listening to speaker Mark Fenton remind us that Warren fended off a Walgreens long ago, I was reminded of a column I wrote in 1997 about how the megadrugstore tried to plop one of its pug-uglies at the town’s main intersection. The column follows:

Warning Warren of Walgreens

July 24, 1997 

THOSE WHO DRIVE through East Bay may be divided into two classes: those who take Route 114 and those who take Route 136. Travelers through Warren likewise divide into two classes: those who take Main Street and those who take Metacom Avenue. In short, there are those who value scenery and those who value speed.

Today, in Warren, both classes – romantics and utilitarians, let us say – may choose. Occasionally, circumstances such as the need to get to a hospital or a cheeseburger quickly force a romantic onto Metacom; a utilitarian with an out-of-town guest may feel compelled to venture onto Main. But normally, we know who we are and plot our routes accordingly.

Readers of this column will not be surprised to learn that I place myself firmly in the Main Street camp. I never take Metacom. They could plow it under for all I’d care – except that all the utilitarians would then be forced to take Main Street, which is already crowded enough. Not for the world would I rob the utilitarians of their Metacom Avenue.

So I was not pleased to learn of a plan to turn Main Street itself into another Metacom Avenue. I refer, of course, to the proposal to put a Walgreens megadrugstore at the corner of Main Street and Market, the “ground zero” of downtown Warren. Why not put it on Metacom where it belongs? It would fit right in. You could get to it faster.

It will be argued that one Walgreens doth not a Metacom make. But the primary difference between Main and Metacom is charm. Metacom is designed, in large measure, to expedite traffic between Aquidneck Island and Route 195. Commercial strips along Metacom are designed so vehicles can zoom in and out – park, shop and depart pronto without slowing the traffic. Metacom has no charm, and no pretense to charm. It has speed and convenience, which are nothing to sniff at. Indeed, there are plans to widen the avenue, making Metacom even more Metacomic.

Main Street, on the other hand, was designed for a more leisurely pace, in an era when shopping was a social activity. Small shops sit shoulder to shoulder, hugging the sidewalk, catering to local trade. Shopkeepers tend to know customers and each other personally. Customers linger, gossip with each other and with shopkeepers in the shops and on the sidewalks, dropping in and out of doors, in and out of conversations, pollinating the life of the town and the politics of the community. Thus, downtown Warren remains much as it was decades ago. That is its charm.

I learned this on Tuesday morning during a walkabout with Gary Budlong, the director of the Warren Preservation Society. In the space of a few moments’ stroll along Market, we encountered a string of players in the Walgreens saga. My guide himself could not have orchestrated such a “sense of community.”

A Walgreens at Main and Market would be the beginning of the end of all that. A 12,000-square-foot store set in a field of asphalt and supercharged with double drive-thru windows would erode civility as well as community. Multiply by two the impact of the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street. Its single drive-thru window causes the sort of back-ups in the morning that Metacom was designed precisely to avoid, and which already overburden Main. To imagine a Walgreens at that intersection is to imagine the dictionary definition of “road rage.”

Not content with clogging a road that already suffers from advanced arteriosclerosis, the current proposal for Walgreens would require the demolition of a host of historic buildings. Their dates of construction are 1802, 1809, circa 1830, 1890 and 1914. To entertain a plan to tear down these buildings is no way for a town to celebrate its 250th anniversary.

Warren today plays second fiddle to Bristol, a wealthier town that has spent more to restore its historic fabric. The old buildings threatened by Walgreens at Market and Main could use such treatment, to say the least. Yet, building for building, Warren‘s architectural heritage rivals that of Bristol. Warren can foresee the day when its “gritty authenticity” is not merely a prelude to Bristol’s beauty. But that day will never arrive if Warren allows Walgreens to turn Main into Metacom, just another strip of retail pods on the way to lovely Bristol.

Like the rest of Rhode Island, Warren must decide which quality is more important to its prosperity. Is it character or convenience? Is it charm or utility? We have both, but must maintain a precarious balance.

Unlike the infrastructure of convenience, the infrastructure of character is delicate, and impossible to retrieve once lost. Every community in Rhode Island has its Metacom Avenue, but each Main Street is unique. Walgreens on Metacom threatens nothing. Walgreens on Main risks everything forever.

* * *

David Brussat is a Journal-Bulletin page design editor, editorial writer and columnist. His e-mail address is: davidbrussat@projo.com

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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