Learning from Concord: a festival for downtown

Starting today, downtown Concord will host its 40th annual Market Days Festival, which runs for three days through Saturday July 19. The festival is a celebration of the Capital City’s downtown, with Main Street closed to traffic and sidewalks lined with vendors and entertainment.

Local businesses and organizations apparently saw the value in putting themselves in front of the more than 50,000 people who attended last year, as this year’s festival will host nearly 200 booths, tents, stages, miniature golf courses and even a temporary park. As NHPR reports, in addition to the “sidewalk sales, food vendors, live music, and other activities,” the event heightens a sense of community in downtown Concord.

It begs the question: if Concord, a city of little over 40,000 people, can pull of such an event, why can’t Manchester? Next weekend, Arms Park will host the first annual Granite State Brewers Association Summer Festival, and Intown Manchester runs the ongoing Summer Concert Series in Veterans Park, but there’s no event in Manchester that captures the same spirit of celebration, community and even commerce as the Market Days Festival in Concord.

Jazz & Blues Festival on Hanover St, early 2000s
Jazz & Blues Festival on Hanover St, early 2000s

During his time as mayor, Robert Baines, along with the Hippo and others, spearhead the Jazz & Blues Festival, which ran for a weekend each summer for a number of years in the early 2000s. The festival featured musicians on several stages on and around Hanover Street, but it also provided a showcase for local businesses and organizations. And it offered a reason for people of all ages and walks of life to congregate downtown. It was such a hit that years after it was last held, it is still touted on websites from the MEDO (the City’s Economic Development Office)’s profile of downtown to Kiplinger’s list of the 10 best cities for retirees. It wasn’t just a celebration of music it showcased, but of downtown Manchester itself. Continue reading

Improving Manchester’s streets for everyone

In the past we’ve looked at ways to transform Canal and Bedford Streets into a vibrant urban boulevard, but today we’re taking a look at a more budget-friendly way to make streets throughout the city–and by extension the neighborhoods around them–better places not just for cars, but for everyone.

Reverting multi-lane one-way streets to two-way

Maple Street toward Ash Street School, Corey Square - photo by Brian O'Connor
Maple Street in Corey Square – photo by Brian O’Connor

Standing on the corner of Maple and Lowell streets in the heart of Corey Square just east of downtown, it can be easy to forget that streets are built not just for cars, but for users of all sorts–pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists. Streets aren’t just ways to move traffic; they’re the lifeblood of cities, connecting neighborhoods and providing valuable public space.

Across the country, cities are reverting busy multi-lane one-way thoroughfares like Maple, Beech, Pine and Chestnut streets into calmer, single-lane two-way streets that respect the livability of neighborhoods and enhance the viability of local businesses. The results are almost entirely positive, from fewer vehicle collisions to decreases in crime.

LivableMHT's redesign of Chestnut Street on Streetmix.net
One possible reconfiguration for a newly two-way Chestnut Street

The slower traffic makes the streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as motorists, and it increases the livability and property values of the neighborhoods around them. And while the traffic is slower, there tends to be more of it, which is good for businesses, including the corner stores, shops and restaurants that already dot Maple, Beech, Pine and Chestnut streets.

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Coffee in the Queen City

Image by ilovecoffee.jp

Word has it that Manchester is the second-most coffee-obsessed city in these United States, behind only Portland, Me. Who knew? Compared to Portland (or the cities of the Pacific Northwest), Manchester isn’t exactly teeming with coffee shops, cafes and coffee culture. It’s hard to turn a corner in Portland, Me., without coming across a local coffee shop or roaster. Even Burlington, Vt., which ranks third behind Manchester and Portland, has a more established coffee scene.

The Men’s Health article that placed Manchester second considered “percentage of households that own coffeemakers and buy coffee; household average spent on coffee; coffee shops per capita; percentage of people who drink coffee and who drink five-plus cups a day” in determining their rankings. With the prevalence of Dunkin’ Donuts–41 within a ten-mile radius of Manchester–and the space devoted to coffee in Manchester’s supermarkets, the ranking makes a bit more sense.

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Cafe la Reine, Downtown

But there has never been a better time to be a coffee drinking in the Queen City than now. Within the past few years, downtown Manchester has seen a resurgence of locally owned coffee shops serving locally roasted coffee. And the rise in coffee roasters hasn’t been far behind, with the Millyard-based Java Tree/Cafe du Jour supplying many local restaurants, and CQ Roasters in Bedford recently being honored for roasting some of the best coffees of 2013.

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Could the armory be reborn as a northern anchor to downtown?

Following the National Guard’s recent failing assessment of to the armory facility on Canal Street, there has been renewed interest in one of the city center’s largest under-development pieces of land. At nine acres, the armory site would be an incredibly valuable piece of land to a developer–and an unparalleled opportunity for the city to mark an impressive urban gateway– if the National Guard decides to find new digs.

Arthur Sullivan of Brady-Sullivan, which owns the eponymous tower next door, thinks the site could be a prime candidate for a major mixed-use development, especially given the influx of young people looking to not just work, but also live downtown. The armory site is a 10-minute walk from Arms Park in the heart of the Millyard and 15 minutes from City Hall, putting it within easy walking distance of thousands of jobs downtown. It’s also on the MTA’s free, frequent Green DASH bus route. The site also straddles the loose boundary between downtown and the North End and Oak Park, a leisurely walk away from Stark Park, Livingston Park, Webster Street and the Currier. That could appeal to young people and families who want to be within walking distance not only of downtown’s jobs, restaurants and nightlife, but of the North End parks and Oak Park’s cultural amenities.

Rendering of Portwalk Place, Portsmouth

Just as important, the armory site is one of the most visible in the city, sitting at the northern gateway to downtown, with almost direct highway access and sitting between Elm, Salmon and Canal streets. That’s where the mixed-use comes in: not just apartments, rowhouses or condos, but ground-floor retail, offices and possibly even an “anchor” retail tenant, something that could draw shoppers downtown. The large site means that ground-floor, street-facing retail spaces could be much bigger than what is commonly found along Elm and Hanover streets downtown. Larger retail spaces could mean that a mixed-use development on the armory site could attract the sort of tenants that currently only exist in shopping malls in the Manchester area. That’s a recipe that has proven successful for mixed-use development in already walkable neighborhoods in PortsmouthWest Hartford, Conn., Somerville, Mass. and elsewhere. Continue reading

Photo by J. Hutchins

Manchester is falling into a pattern of decisions that are penny-wise, but pound-foolish. The City will be raising the cost of downtown parking, which is admittedly cheap compared to cities like Portsmouth, but Portsmouth already has a downtown that is thriving despite the “hassle of parking.” Downtown Manchester can get packed, but mostly during the workday. Nights and weekends, it’s a much quieter place, even if it’s doing pretty well. Now, a raise parking fee comes just as interest in downtown as a destination is starting to grow again.

Without improving downtown infrastructure and transit, raising the cost of parking just to stay within the tax cap will make it more difficult to draw people to downtown to shop or dine. Any increase in parking fees should direct some additional funding to programs like the MTA’s Green DASH, the free downtown shuttle bus, that could make people more likely to visit downtown outside of 9-5 workday hours. By bowing to the arbitrary (and insufficient) limit set by the tax cap, and relying instead on downtown parking fees, Manchester risks slowing the resurgence of its downtown and, ironically, potential future tax revenue.

Manchester 2026: Could the Queen City host the winter games?

The Olympic Cauldron in Salt Lake City, 2002 – photo by Preston Keres

A month after the close of the Sochi games, it’s clear that the Winter Olympics have come a long way since the 1980 games in tiny Lake Placid. As the winter games move on to South Korea in 2018, the host for the 2022 games has not been selected yet. No American cities are among the contenders, and by 2022, it will have been 20 years since the United States last hosted an Olympics (summer or winter), in Salt Lake City in 2002. Salt Lake City (population 189,314) far eclipsed other American communities that had hosted the Winter Olympics (Lake Placid in 1932 and 1980, and Squaw Valley in 1960) in terms of population, and it hasn’t been since the 1994 games in Lillehammer that a small town hosted the Winter Olympics. But after the excesses and empty seats of Sochi, some are looking for a return to a more restrained Winter Olympics wherever they may end up in 2022 and beyond.

Already, a group in Boston is promoting that city as a potential host for the 2026 games, with venues in the White Mountains serving a key role. But with its rich history of winter sports (the Nansen Ski Club, founded in Berlin in 1872, is the oldest in America) and abundant scenic beauty, New Hampshire could be a contender for a future Winter Olympics in its own right–smaller than Vancouver or Salt Lake City but much bigger than Lake Placid or Lillehammer, and not far from Boston and New York City. That prompted friend-of-the-site and co-founder of the Rimmon Heights neighborhood group, Gary Therrien to muse about the possibility of the Winter Olympics coming to New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

“[Sochi] once was unheard of [and] now becomes a notable spot on the map. This made me think, could New Hampshire host an Olympic games? … An Olympic Games in New Hampshire has the potential to help New Hampshire grow … this would be a statewide event.” -Gary Therrien

Therrien’s idea inspired LivableMHT to imagine Manchester’s role in a statewide Winter Olympics. With the Verizon Wireless Arena, a handful of smaller ice venues, a mid-sized airport, several thousand hotel rooms nearby, and (barring political maneuvering to scuttle it) a rail connection to Boston by 2022, Manchester would be well-situated to host the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and a bulk of the ice events. And like the White Mountains, Manchester has a rich history of winter sports, hosting the second largest Winter Carnival in the country in the mid-twentieth century.

Olympic Stadium

Derryfield Park with downtown skyline & Uncanoonuc Mountains in the distance - photo by Brian O'Connor
Derryfield Park with downtown skyline & Uncanoonuc mountains in the distance – photo by Brian O’Connor

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Finding your way around Manchester

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Colorful wayfinding sign in Salem, Ore.

Alderman Pat Long, who represents Ward 3 and thus much of downtown, is calling for the city to finally install uniform wayfinding signs at gateways to the city. The signs would point the way to multiple institutions, mostly downtown and in the Millyard, but also to major attractions like the Currier Museum of Art in the Oak Park neighborhood.

Over the past several years, signs have popped up along roadsides and sidewalks around the city pointing the way to individual institutions ranging from the Verizon Wireless Arena (which some old signs still refer to as the Civic Arena) to NHIA. As the City’s 2009 Master Plan points out, “an attractive and well organized Wayfinding signage system can not only make it easier for visitors to find their way around the City, but also can give the impression of a well organized and appealing City.” And a decade ago, the Manchester Economic Development Office proposed a wayfinding signage program, but the City never funded that request, and Manchester is still without a uniform wayfinding signage system.

After the aldermanic Committee on Public Safety voted last night to approve new signs for UNH Manchester, Alderman Long renewed his request for a uniform wayfinding signage system. Referencing the abundance of individual signs, Alderman Long warned: “I’ve got a funny feeling if we approve this one, two weeks from now we’re going to get another call… They’ll say, ‘Where’s my sign?’”

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Signage in Burlington, designed by LandWorks, has provided information and a particularly attractive image of the city for visitors since 1986

Other cities offer examples for wayfinding signage that are both useful and attractive, and even as wayfinding becomes easier with GPS and cell phone apps, the signage adds to the informational and aesthetic appeal of a city. Two nearby cities provide case studies that Manchester could follow: signage in Burlington, a college town, and Portland, a tourist-driven city, show the way for students and tourists to find major destinations in town. Continue reading

Make Manchester weird

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LivableMHT’s rendering of a Make Manchester Weird sign adorning Hanover Street

If you’ve traveled around the country, you may be familiar with the Keep Austin Weird slogan and its offshoots in Louisville, Portland and other cities. On the surface, these campaigns are intended to promote small, local businesses, but they also hint at something more fundamental about these cities, about the attitudes and culture that make them unique.

Keep Louisville Weird sign in the Bonnycastle neighborhood of Louisville – photo by W.marsh

Portland, Louisville and Austin are all very different cities, but they share certain things in common: the large presence of colleges and universities, a thriving arts scene, an active interest in local businesses, downtowns built along major rivers, and distinct identities that might be described as weird, in the sense of being different, unique or special in an appealing way.

Now, Manchester isn’t as prominent or as weird as any of those cities, but it does have a growing student population (among the largest in northern New England), an increasingly visible arts community, a vibrant downtown that has yet to tap the full potential of the Merrimack River, an increased interest in local businesses and restaurants, and if you know where to look, there’s even a certain weirdness lurking under the surface. After all, where else do candidates like Vermin Supreme get invited to a presidential candidate forum while a piggy bank rolls through the city center? Continue reading

Infrastructure as canvas

A painted utility box in Minneapolis – photo by Uncommon Fritallary

Over the past year, LivableMHT has discussed some big ideas for the city–the Riverwalk, a vision for connecting the riverfront and Elm StreetSTEAM Ahead, bike lanes and trails, preserving the few remaining historic buildings in Granite Square, the identity of Manchester’s neighborhoods, the need for city leaders to guide growth, and the ongoing efforts of Intown Manchester to do just that–but often improvement in the city can result from relatively small interventions. And in the scale of the city, things don’t come much smaller than the utility boxes that dot sidewalks across Manchester. With that in mind, Studio 550, in collaboration with the City, the Manchester Arts Comission and Intown Manchester, is calling on New Hampshire artists to beautify a handful of utility boxes around downtown in an initiative called Think Outside the Box.

In Boston, where the program is called Paintbox, and other cities, painted utility boxes have turned infrastructural eyesores into public art, beautifying neighborhoods, deterring vandalism, and showcasing local talent. The call to artists is open to all New Hampshire residents, but Think Outside the Box is especially encouraging Manchester residents to apply. Applications will be judged by a local jury, and the winners will paint their designs on downtown utility boxes in April.

Beautifying utility boxes is small change, but one that shows the color–literal and figurative, in this case–of the city, and could lead to other small improvements in infrastructure and beautification, and that could eventually raise the entire perception and appearance of the Queen City.

It’s good to see an organization like Studio 550 working to improve the city. It will be even better to see the newly painted utility boxes in 2014. Happy New Year, Manchester.

STEAM Ahead and the future of Manchester

Fresh off his re-election earlier this month, Mayor Ted Gatsas joined with former Mayor Bob Baines (who prior to his time as mayor was the longtime principal of West High Schol) and  other community leaders to announce an innovative plan called STEAM Ahead NH to improve educational outcomes at West. The program, which will begin next fall, could also eventually attract students from outside the West Side, including elsewhere in Manchester and potentially surrounding towns. That could also boost West’s enrollment, which has declined since Bedford opened its own high school in 2007.

STEAM is a twist on the familiar STEM acronym–adding the arts to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math that are increasingly in demand, especially in a city that is home to the “Silicon Millyard.” The initiative is an academy and laboratory-based program within West that will prepare “students for the challenge of meeting the daily needs of this dynamic, diverse, and richly complex community.”

Beyond its potential to better prepare students for college and careers, and to turnaround a struggling high school, STEAM Ahead is a new educational model for New Hampshire, and one that fits the collaborative ethos of the state. Rather than relying solely on the resources of the Manchester School District, STEAM Ahead is a collaboration with higher education (specifically the University System of New Hampshire and Manchester Community College) and the local business community (beginning with founding partners Dyn and Silvertech). The program will allow students to earn up to a year of college credits tuition-free and, in the words of Dyn CEO Jeremy Hitchcock (who, like this writer, is a graduate of West), “help develop our own students into the workforce of tomorrow.”

Former Mayor Bob Baines & Mayor Ted Gatsas discussing STEAM Ahead on Girard At Large.

LivableMHT has in the past criticized Mayor Gatsas, who saw a closer-than-expected victory on November 5, for failing to articulate an overarching vision for the city. We applaud the mayor, though, not only for stewarding such a visionary program for the one of the city’s most struggling schools, but for waiting until after the election to avoid any perception of politics in announcing it.

We still think Manchester needs a strong unifying vision going forward, but could STEAM Ahead be the first step in getting there? As he begins his third term, there’s an opportunity for Mayor Gastas to use STEAM Ahead not only as a means to improve education in the Queen City, but as a model for other projects throughout the Manchester.

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