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In the heart of the city
A look at 10 years in downtowns — and a plan for Manchester’s future

08/05/10



Downtown was a very different place a decade ago, no matter where you look.

There was no Verizon Wireless Arena or MerchantsAuto.com Stadium in Manchester. The restaurant scene was hardly the draw in the Queen City it is today.

Nashua was coming off a previous decade in which Main Street saw substantial growth in retail and restaurants that extended into the early part of this decade.

In Concord, there was no Red River Theatres and no Capital Commons.

Today, diners can choose from a variety of upper-scale restaurants in Manchester and then catch a show at the Palace Theatre, which saw a revival in the last decade, or a concert or hockey game at the Verizon Wireless Arena or a ballgame at MerchantsAuto.com Stadium. Hanover Street has become a shopper’s destination just off Elm Street as well. Though maybe not as exciting, the city’s parking program has been renovated in dramatic fashion — parkers can use an EZ Pass-like transmitter to park as opposed to popping quarters in a meter.

Even the geographic definition of downtown may be spreading in Manchester. With the Elliot at River’s Edge and and a  planned Market Basket, south Elm Street is seeing development.  In another 10 years, “downtown” could mean an area from Valley Street (or south) through well north of Bridge Street and not just along Elm Street but on nearby streets as well. The brick apartments and condos on streets betwen Elm Street and Canal Street near City Hall are now considered part of the Historic District — HiDi, as those in the know now call it. One of the people involved with developing that area, Kas-Bar Realty owner Greg Barrett, is now working on a plan to develop a block east of Elm Street into a new arts-focused district. If his plans come to fruition, another decade could see performers playing on an open air stage where Citizens Bank now has its drive-throughs and high end residential units overlooking a park that is home to outdoor art exhibits.

In Concord, patrons can enjoy a drink while they take in an independent movie at Red River Theatres. In Nashua, Jackson Falls Condominiums mark the major redevelopment in the downtown area. There’s potentially more on the way for Nashua, with the Broad Street Parkway — two decades in the making — slated for action soon.

One change that has been in and out of the works for some time is the extension of high-speed rail from Lowell, Mass., to Nashua, Manchester and Concord. That didn’t happen, though the decade did hear plenty of talk on the subject.

Historically, Manchester has been the business and financial center of New Hampshire and even northern New England. That hasn’t changed. Concord remains tied to the downtown traffic generated by the Statehouse. And Nashua is still probably most regarded for its shopping and dining scene.
The significance of a healthy downtown isn’t lost on community leaders.

“The downtown is the heartbeat of the community,” said Robin Comstock, president and CEO of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. “It would die without a healthy, vital downtown.”

About 15 or 20 years ago, Sy Mahfuz, who owns Persian Rug Galleries in Nashua, gave a talk to downtown business owners. He told them business owners went home each night and appreciated their nice neighborhoods and homes. They noticed when lawns needed to be mowed, shrubs needed to be trimmed and when homes needed a coat of paint. Those same business owners would turn a blind eye to their downtown neighborhood. To remain successful, he told business owners they needed to treat downtown like their neighborhood, to keep it “looking beautiful, bright and cheerful. Then we’ll always have the best downtown going. This is my neighborhood and I want to see it taken care of,” he said.

Queen City
Big changes occurred in all three major cities, but the most dramatic changes happened in the Queen City.

“Regardless of the past, we think it’s really important to acknowledge the downtown as a vital, dynamic, beautiful, safe, thriving community, with an incredible urban central business district,” Comstock said. “We are incredible. We’re not anymore becoming incredible or having the potential to be incredible. I think that’s the fundamental difference.”

The downtown now is not just the central business district, it’s also a district with dining, shopping and entertainment, though business owners downtown would like to continue to see more retail options, officials say.

“Standing in the middle of Elm Street, you’re standing in the heart of a beautiful, safe, vital, small, urban center community,” Comstock said. “Ten years ago, you were standing in a depressed, discouraged and defeated community.”

The formation of the central business district, when the leaders in the private sector came together as the core of the city, was integral to Elm Street’s becoming a destination.

“Business leaders rose to the occasion,” Comstock said.

Those leaders joined together and decided to fund, through a central business district tax, a group, Intown Manchester, to improve and beautify downtown to help retain businesses and draw in new ones.
“That collided with a new attention to the downtown, a new attention to the importance of the quality and character of the downtown community, and the community’s ability to sustain and obtain employers who provide good jobs and disposable income,” Comstock said.

“...Simply drive along Elm Street, and take a look at the number of sidewalk cafés dotting the downtown,” said Stephanie Lewry, executive director of Intown Manchester. “We have a sense of community, now. Ten years ago restaurants were few and outdoor seating was rare. Now we have many high-quality restaurants and most offer outdoor seating....”

Comstock mentioned there has been a new attention to public schools as well. There has also been a rise in higher education in and near downtown, such as the New Hampshire Institute of Art and the University of New Hampshire at Manchester. That’s helped give the downtown a younger, more vibrant feel.

“There’s a different mix of people you’ll see on the street today,” said Jay Minkarah, Manchester’s economic development director.

In the last decade, city leaders in Manchester made a conscious decision to turn downtown Manchester into a destination as part of an overall economic development strategy. That’s why the city invested in the Verizon Wireless Arena and the baseball stadium, allowing the city to build around professional sports teams. The arena, which is home to the Manchester Monarchs, the primary affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, was purposely built without its own parking in hopes of encouraging people to simply park downtown and do some shopping or eating on the way to the arena. Doing it that way helped spur the relatively recent growth in restaurants and shops in the downtown area, Minkarah said.

“That strategy was successful,” Minkarah said, adding the arena specifically was something the city invested in with the expressed purpose of creating downtown, as a whole, as a destination.

The transformation took time. The last couple years have seen marked growth, particularly in the restaurant sector downtown. A booming restaurant scene now includes Z Food and Drink, Mint Bistro, Ignite Bar and Grill, XO on Elm, Republic and Firefly American Bistro & Bar, all of which have arrived in the last few years, and Portland Pie Company and Wings Your Way, spots that opened in the last few months, as well as restaurants like Cotton and Richard’s Bistro, which have been around for 10 and 15 years respectively.
“Dining is interesting in every community,” Comstock said. “It’s an important piece of the revitalization efforts.”

It wasn’t just the arena that made the transformation possible. The Palace Theatre was at the point of potentially closing a decade ago. Since then, it’s been rejuvenated as an entertainment outlet in the downtown. Though the condos planned for behind the baseball stadium have yet to be built, Minkarah said they eventually will be and he expected the overall development, which includes the Hilton Garden Inn, to be successful both by itself and in continuing to draw people to downtown.

“It really changed dramatically,” Minkarah said, adding that 10 years ago Elm Street was a business district that essentially shut down on nights and weekends. That’s no more.

The changes to the downtown haven’t happened without controversy. While most would agree the arena created the desired effect downtown, many weren’t happy and still aren’t happy about how it was done, specifically that substantial public funds were used to make it happen. The city contributed about $50 million to the Verizon Wireless Arena in the form of 30-year city bonds. The city contributed $24.3 million to the baseball stadium, now home to the Fisher Cats, the Double-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. Manchester relies on state revenue sharing from the rooms and meals tax to make its annual bond payments on the stadium.

Developers have played a big role in rehabbing many of the city’s historic structures — the Chase Block and the Bond, Dunlap, and McQuaid buildings. Many of those buildings were unused or underused. Today, those buildings are landmarks and are actively used. Comstock said the Chase building was one of the premier revitalizations in the state that offers upscale office, upscale living and retail space. Margaritas sits in the building’s first floor today. In the push to make Manchester a 24-hour downtown, the apartments at the corner of Bridge and Elm streets went up. Officials say the downtown could use plenty more residential space as the demand continues to grow.

Some of the changes in Manchester that have had effects downtown haven’t happened exactly in downtown. Minkarah said the reconstruction of the Granite Street bridge is key both logistically in terms of accessing downtown and as much so aesthetically. Now, when drivers exit Interstate 293, they’re met with stylish and inviting architecture.

“The ramps [off I-293], from both directions, and the magnificent views from the highway, make a dramatic first impression to visitors entering the city,” Lewry said.

Drivers are also met with a nearly completely rehabbed Pandora Mill, which was the last building in the Millyard to be renovated. Minkarah said it’s essential that people see these improvements and take pride in them as they enter downtown.

“[Pandora Mill] was a symbol of blight and decay.” Minkarah said. “Now it’s a sign of innovation and vitality. That’s huge.”

The blossoming of the Millyard as a high-tech hub was important in drawing more workers to Manchester and subsequently downtown for their entertainment needs after hours.

The changes are dramatic but some aren’t so positive for the Queen City. The downtown lost two longstanding jewelry stores as well as the famed Merrimack Restaurant.

“Some institutions have come and gone,” Minkarah said.

Elm Street still suffers from congestion issues, as well as frequent complaints about parking. The new parking shuttle, which circulates people throughout downtown, would hopefully address some of those issues, Minkarah said.

Some aren’t all that pleased with the brick sidewalks downtown. Some see them as hazards for walking, particularly for the elderly, and others have complained about maintenance issues with the sidewalks. Minkarah also said, though he didn’t have statistics, that homeless people are as visible as they’ve ever been downtown, if not more so. Though it remains a major issue, crime has dissipated some.

The Gate City
In the mid-1990s, Michael Buckley led a charge of new upscale restaurants that ended up calling downtown Nashua home. He set up shop with Michael Timothy’s on Main Street and later opened Surf across the street. [Buckley also opened Buckley’s Great Steaks in Merrimack.] Other such restaurants, like Fody’s and Saffron Bistro, have followed suit.

“The restaurants have brought an incredible amount of interest and traffic to downtown,” Mahfuz said.
But growth downtown has slowed some in the last five years or so. Nashua has made headlines for the wrong reasons in recent years as some downtown institutions, such as Jordan’s Luggage and Cameraland, have closed. Mahfuz blamed the poor economy for some of downtown’s troubles but struck an optimistic note. Downtown Nashua has seen plenty of new businesses take a chance. Some have worked so far, others didn’t last, but the willingness to start up on Main Street proves the downtown remains vital, Mahfuz said, adding downtown’s success is vital to the success of Nashua overall.

The Broad Street Parkway — long talked about as potentially being a major catalyst for downtown growth — hasn’t happened. The project, as originally designed, would have provided direct access to downtown, in the form of a highway off-ramp, from the Everett Turnpike. The parkway would connect Exit 6 off the Everett Turnpike directly with downtown, which could provide access to the millyard for future development. Along with creating a cross-city roadway, the project would bypass congested areas and would establish a new bridge over the Nashua River. The project has been controversial as some residents aren’t pleased with the construction impact, while others are concerned the cost is too great and the benefits too little. Officials now say the project will happen, but it’s hard to know how much of an impact it would have had, had it been constructed sooner.

“We can complain about the things we don’t have that we all want, but what are we doing with what we have available now?” Mahfuz asked. “We’re not going to let it interfere with the growth or success of our business because it is or isn’t here.”

Practically speaking, Mahfuz, who sits on the committee for the parkway, said the roadway was designed to help alleviate traffic particularly in robust times. He wants the project to happen, but times haven’t been robust in recent years, he said.

“If things are as bad as we say there are, is it as practical today as the project was 10 or 15 years ago?” Mahfuz said. “I think we can use it as an excuse, but it’s not a reason.”

Mahfuz said the sidewalks downtown need to be redone, as they can be a safety issue. Also, as in any urban setting, people often complain about parking, though Mahfuz said that’s not as big an issue as people make it out to be. He did say it’s important for business owners and their employees to use parking garages rather than use up spaces in front of their business. An additional police presence downtown would only serve to enhance the city’s image, particularly after hours.

With the downtown’s resurgence in the mid-1990s, many businesses invested in their facades and the overall look of their business. Mahfuz said it’s getting to be time to reinvest in that area.

The Jackson Falls project has been and will be a key piece of the downtown puzzle. The timing ended up working against it — the economy collapsed as owners were trying to sell off units.

“I think those sorts of things will be incredibly important to downtown long-term,” Mahfuz said.

A major project off Franklin Street also didn’t happen. It would have featured lofts and affordable housing, but it ran into the economy as well.

“I think when I look at projects that have helped Main Street, there’s not much that’s happened because people have been so concerned about their pocketbooks and surviving,” Mahfuz said.

Again, Mahfuz took a positive tone when talking about the city’s leaders. He said the mayor and aldermen are doing the long-term planning necessary to maintain downtown as the “heart of Nashua.”

The capital city
Downtown Concord has always been a destination for retail and for government. Concord’s downtown has been marked by eclectic shops, such as the Concord Cooperative Market, Butter’s Fine Food, art galleries and Real Green Goods.

“There are lot of independently owned boutique-type shops that make it attractive,” said Tim Sink, president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce. Sink said the city has made a number of additional improvements during the past 10 years to make it even more of a visitor destination.

The city has also filled its business gaps. A 2004 study called for several different types of businesses, among them a health and beauty store, a butcher shop and a gourmet food store. The city got Lotions and Potions, Butter’s and Concord Beef and Seafood.

The Capitol Center of the Arts has been a catalyst for cultural offerings in downtown Concord, such as Red River Theatres, which presents a very different product than viewers get at mainstream theaters, Sink said.
“It’s more than just going to the movies,” Sink said, noting that patrons can sip a glass of wine while they watch a film. Often there are lectures with filmmakers who come to discuss their work.

Once change that officials hope will have a big impact was the removal of the overnight parking ban for downtown. The overnight parking ban in Concord had long been a stumbling block for prospective developers looking to create residences. Downtown officials are hoping the ban’s removal, about three years ago, helps spur developers to redevelop the city’s upper-floor space. The city has hosted tours of upper-floor housing in the past couple years, to show the potential that exists upstairs.

During the last decade, Sink said, the downtown has continued to expand south of Pleasant Street, which is marked by Red River Theatres and Capital Commons, a brand new office building with restaurant space as well.

“That cleaned things up quite a bit and created more activity south of Pleasant Street,” Sink said.
Downtown Concord has also seen more restaurants coming in, which has helped expand the city’s nightlife. Eateries have opened their doors to outside dining as well.

Sink has noticed an increase in ethnic diversity in the last 10 years. Concord has seen increases in its refugee population and, in turn, different ethnic groups are beginning to become intertwined in the fabric of the community. That’s showing up in the types of businesses downtown, some of which have an ethnic focus.

“It’s added a kind of new flavor,” Sink said.

Looking ahead
For Concord, the next decade could include major changes. Main Street Concord and Concord 2020 are facilitating an effort to re-think Main Street for a plan that could entail wider sidewalks, more trees and shrubs, lane reconfigurations and even heated sidewalks. The plan could include more flexible space, such as using the same space for parking in colder months and for outdoor dining in warmer times.
“It is a good street and a strong downtown,” said Jennifer Kretovic, executive director of Concord 2020, earlier this year. “What we need to do is make it a great street.”

Looking ahead, the entire block across the street from Red River is being redeveloped as a five-story mixed-use building that will feature the League of New Hampshire Craftsman’s gallery on the main level. The building will also house 300 employees of Concord Hospital, which remains one of the city’s largest employers.

Sink said the city continues to make stimulating creative enterprise a priority. The Chamber has a standing committee with one of its prime objectives to create incubator space to attract creative enterprises.

Also in an effort to spur growth and redevelopment downtown, Concord has a tax credit program that is about two years old that allows companies or developers to forsake some tax payments in the short term, to allow them to renovate space for the long term.

Comstock, seeing a similarly bright future in Manchester, said what’s happened in the last decade in Manchester has provided the staging ground for the future.

“I think a lot’s going to happen in the next 10 years,” Comstock said.

Manchester recently passed an “existing-building code,” which provides developers with more leeway in working on older and historic structures. Officials hope that will make it easier, in terms of finances, time and design, for developers to renovate older space downtown. Minkarah expects the city to continue to expand on a network of pedestrian and bicycle trails to make the city more accessible.

Intown Manchester is looking to focus on the south Elm Street area in coming years. It’s an area that is seeing the Elliot at River’s Edge constructed where the Jac-Pac Meat Packing facility once stood. There is a Market Basket grocery store in the works for the area as well, Lewry said.

“I just think it’s really important that the caretakers and advocates continue to work together ... continue to anchor around the primary assets, our education systems, arts and culture, fine dining, and realize our fullest potential in the most creative way possible,” Comstock said.

While Nashua hasn’t seen a substantial amount of development in its downtown during the last 10 years, Mahfuz said he thinks the downtown is well-positioned to be particularly successful in the coming decade. The Broad Street Parkway is coming down the pike and there are plenty of opportunities for redevelopment. Mahfuz said he’s expecting big things for Nashua as he looks ahead.






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