On a recent Wednesday morning, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas was checking out a new apartment. He perused the staged bedroom, furnished with bed sheets that matched the throw pillows on the living room couch, opened the spacious closet and enjoyed the view of Manchester’s downtown from 10 stories up.
Gatsas isn’t in the market for a new crash-pad; he was taking a tour following a ribbon-cutting of the newly renovated Citizens Bank building at 875 Elm St. with developer and local media mogul Bill Binnie, the CEO of Carlyle Capital Corp. and owner of cable news channel NH1.
“We’re going to be bringing two to three hundred people through our almost 100 apartments into Manchester and onto Elm Street, which we think is great, good for everybody,” Binnie said.
He said he thinks the apartments will give downtown restaurants and retailers more business. The idea is that more downtown residents means more money spent in downtown restaurants and retail stops. While Elm Street now has more at least four commercial vacancies (plus a fifth by the end of the year) the city seems poised to remedy that soon with an influx of new downtown rental units.
People = dollars
About 25 percent of the new units, which range in price from $1,300 to $3,000 a month for one and two bedrooms, have been filled already, and the average income of the residents is $210,000, Binnie said.
Binnie said he took what was unwanted office space in the old Amoskeag Bank high rise, the first “skyscraper” in Manchester, and converted it into highly sought-after residential space. It’s hoped that projects like these will help support Elm Street’s ailing businesses with increased foot traffic.
Getting more residential apartments downtown has been one of Gatsas’ economic planks since he first ran for mayor.
“As I said seven years ago, if I can get 2,000 more people to live downtown, retail will come back,” Gatsas said. “So, I think with the addition of these 91 apartments [at 875 Elm], with the addition of the micro-apartments that are up on Hanover Street, the 20 units that are going in across the street, that’s going to start making retail really start to think about coming back to the downtown.”
The logic behind that is simple, according to Susan Silberberg, and urban planner with CivicMoxie, an urban planning firm in Boston.
“The more households you have, the more spending. The more discretionary spending that happens, the more foot traffic for businesses that rely on foot traffic,” Silberberg said.
She has been spending the past several months on the Manchester Connects project to come up with ways to improve the city’s downtown. Manchester Connects was a project started by the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission to craft a transportation and land use plan that creates a more vibrant and interconnected city core.
Pat Long, the chairman of the board of aldermen, said in 2006 there were about 8,000 residents downtown. The latest study shows about 12,000 residents and researchers have suggested the city will start to attract more businesses in the area when it reaches 14,000. The initial study area skims the north end up to Webster Street, goes across the river along West Side’s Main Street, uses Queen City Ave as its southern border and extends as far east as Beech Street.
Between 1990 and 2000, the main strip of Elm saw negative or zero population growth. The millyard and a few blocks eastward saw only 1 to 24 percent growth. Only the southernmost part of the study area saw growth above 50 percent.
Part of the problem had been zoning, since most of the city’s core was zoned for commercial use. But as city planners have seen the benefits of mixed use zoning in recent years, that’s started to change.
Long sees how fast vacant residential units are getting snatched up by young professionals and empty-nesters, and he’s optimistic.
“I don’t see any falling back in the downtown area,” Long said.
Retail and restaurants
For a variety of reasons specific to each business, Elm Street recently saw a spate of business closings.
The Queen’s Pub at 641 Elm St. closed in August after opening just the year before. CVS moved out of its 947 Elm St. space, and so did Spite, a nightclub nextdoor at 941 Elm St.
The downtown location of Manchester Community College at 889 Elm closed its doors recently, as did Maggie’s Restaurant at 866 Elm St. and Eliza’s Weepeats, a consignment store at 950 Elm. Finesse Pastries at 968 Elm St. has stopped operating as a cafe. And the space that held the Ted Herbert’s Music Mart, a landmark storefront at 922 Elm St., has been mostly empty save for a portion used for music lessons.
But many of these locations have new businesses coming in. Part of Binnie’s 875 Elm project is using the south building, currently used by Citizens Bank, for an as-yet-unnamed café and a third location for BRGR Bar, an upscale burger restaurant from Portsmouth.
The former Maggie’s Restaurant space will become a Mediterranean restaurant called Matbah Cuisine. During the election, the old Eliza’s space is being occupied by the Shawn O’Connor for Congress campaign. Meanwhile, the Ted Herbert’s space is being converted into a southern-style restaurant called Dixie Blues and the upper floors will see the addition of more apartments.
A juice bar called Milk & Honey Juicer and Café is planning to move into 889 Elm. The CVS space has been up for sale for the past eight months or so, according to Long. He thinks it will sell fairly quickly. Commercial spaces changing hands is not unusual.
“I think in any downtown area, and this goes for any urban center … there is always going to be, at some level, a natural turnover among downtown businesses,” Skelton said.
But most agree that the retail market is not as strong as it could be.
“I think it’s a lack of residents, I really do,” said downtown restaurateur Joel Soucy. “The more people that live down here … it would actually sustain a retail environment.”
Soucy is co-owner of the newest restaurant on Elm Street, the Birch on Elm at 931 Elm. Before he started up, the space was occupied by the tapas place Funktion for less than a year following the departure of Dos Amigos.
Soucy is also part of the influx of downtown residents. Recently, he closed on an apartment at The Flats on 235 Hanover St., walking distance from his restaurant. The Flats recently opened with 24 trendy micro-apartments geared toward young professionals.
Manchester chamber of commerce president Michael Skelton said the influx of residential is coming from a few different groups of people.
“I think it’s going to be a mix going forward of young professionals, students and also more established members of the workforce, perhaps people who are looking to downsize as they enter the later half or third of their careers,” Skelton said. “What the market is telling us is that there is demand for high quality units at a price point that is different from what we’ve seen in the past.”
Skelton thinks the millyard is city’s greatest asset and one of the major reasons for its economic growth.
“We have a thriving millyard area that present mixed use opportunities for companies, start-ups and residents. We have a main street downtown area that offers entertainment options, arts and cultural options, residential options, dining options, all at a very high quality level,” Skelton said. “In the short term right now, the growth in the millyard from technology companies has been the incentive, … the thing that has lit the fuse to start this growth in new residential options downtown.”
Skelton said he’s not necessarily concerned about retail or restaurants moving out, but looks at how long it takes for those spaces to get filled again.
“And what we’ve seen is … the window is very short where desireable space is sitting on the market,” Skelton said.
Sustainable retail growth, Skelton said, is particularly sensitive to the number of nearby residents because retail relies more heavily on spontaneous visitors from foot traffic.
“Density is the key to supporting business growth of all different shapes and sizes,” Skelton said.
Silberberg said the challenge is getting the Elm street area connected with the millyard.
“The millyards right now are one of the strong economic engines for the city. … Being able to read downtown and the millyard as one is pretty important,” Silberberg said. “Of course, the millyards were built intentionally to be very separate from the downtown.”
The difficulty today, according to Skelton is not the proximity of the millyard but its relative walkability. In order to create a more vibrant millyard area, Skelton said the city can consider minor things like improved signage for pedestrians, bike lanes, improved sidewalks and traffic calming measures on busy streets. It can also embark on some infrastructure projects like a flyover pedestrian bridge at the Granite Street and Commercial Street intersection, which sees a lot of workers and students crossing every morning.
There are some positive signs that things might be at the cusp of a more thriving downtown ecosystem.
“Manchester’s got some momentum going with the residential projects that are going on,” Silberberg said. “And what we see nationally are trends with empty nesters who really want to stay in the communities in which they raised their kids but they don’t want their house. They want to be free of the maintenance, and they do love urban living and all of the things that it can get them.”
Binnie said he plans on doing more projects like the one in the Citizens building in Manchester’s downtown.
“We’re actually in the process, negotiating with one other very large landowner and building in the city and we hope to be making an announcement on that in the coming weeks,” Binnie said.
Gatsas would like to see a movie theater downtown, and he thinks the Old Sol Music Hall, a music concert venue that’s being proposed at the historic Rex Theatre building at 23 Amherst St., will be good for the area. Skelton is excited about Cabonnay, an upscale wine house coming to Bridge Street.