Looking forward at the River’s Edge

The new Elliot at River’s Edge, an ambulatory care facility, is about to open on the old Jac-Pac site along Queen City Ave and–you guessed it–the river’s edge.  The project has been many years in the making, and its completion represents the last major project begun before the economic downturn.  Unlike Carthagina in the middle of the Merrimack just to the south, though, the Elliot at River’s Edge is not an island.

In addition to bringing new jobs and a health care center to the Bakersville neighborhood south of Downtown, the Rivers Edge project is an attractive addition to the skyline and southern approach to Manchester.  The building has a surprising presence from both the Everett Turnpike across the river and Queen City Ave that is not captured completely in photos online, and complements the handsome, old factories and smokestack at Hesser Center across the street.  Taken together, the buildings create an anchoring cluster of large structures at the southernmost end of Downtown, similar to the Brady-Sullivan Tower (formerly New Hampshire Tower) and apartment high-rises north of the Amoskeag Bridge.

Baltic Townhomes @ Rivers Edge

The greatest impact of the Rivers Edge project, though, is the investment and redevelopment of the surrounding area that it has the potential to attract.  Baltic Townhomes at Rivers Edge, four units of housing on an infill site, was recently completed nearby on Vernon Street, and is being marketed to workers at the Rivers Edge and Downtown looking for a walkable, urban lifestyle.  Replacing the blighted Jac-Pac meat packing plant with a modern health care center and a park to bookend the Riverwalk is already a huge improvement, but the area along Queen City Ave and Elm Street south of Granite Street/Lake Ave is still an auto-focused area that needs and deserves to be strengthened further as a walkable, urban neighborhood.

The City is so intent on transforming the area that it is actually zoned as Redevelopment District (RDV) – Mixed Use:

The intent of this district is to providea transitional mixed use district that facilitates the redevelopment of areas lying between the Central Business District and the residential multifamily districts. The RDV District follows the axis of an abandoned rail corridor that once supported industrial uses, but which now represents an area of underutilized land and buildings. The provisions for this district reflect the need to provide flexible opportunities for redevelopment to a more productive mixture of commercial, industrial, and residential uses, subject to performance standards that will protect existing adjacent residential neighborhoods.

That’s why news that Dunkin’ Donuts is hoping to build a drive-thru coffee shop at the entrance to the Elliot at River’s Edge is so disappointing.  According to the Planning Board agenda, the developers are proposing “the construction of an approximately 2,000 SF Dunkin’ Donuts building with drive-thru and the construction of an approximately 3,135 SF multi-tenant building, including a pharmacy”.  The site in question is called out as “Retail Building” plus the adjacent parking lot in the Cube 3 site plan.

Rivers Edge Site Plan from Cube3 Studio

The site plan is schematic and conceptual, and it could be improved upon, but the basic siting of the retail building is good.  It faces the street–actually both Queen City Ave and the Rivers Edge drive, which may later be connected to Elm Street via Gas Street–with parking reserved on the back side.  This makes the building accessible to pedestrians, such as those walking over from the Elliot or new residential buildings and elsewhere in the neighborhood, as well as auto commuters.

A drive-thru, on the other hand, requires large paved surface areas and leads to a building that unmistakably caters to drivers only.  Drive-thrus are entirely incompatible with a walkable, vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood, such as the one envisioned by Hillier for Bakersville and southern Elm Street in their 2006 Downtown Strategic Plan.

Ideally, an urban-scaled building with retail on the ground floor and offices or residences above would be built on the site.  Built up to the corner, it would create a strong view corridor up the drive to Rivers Edge and encourage similar development along Queen City Ave once the economy recovers.  Developers might be reluctant to take up a project of that scale at the moment, but that shouldn’t mean a drive-thru needs to be built.

Pedestrian-oriented retail strip, North Portland, Ore.

There are plenty of examples of small, single-story, pedestrian-friendly, multi-tenant retail strips that could easily be built in place of a drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts.  Unlike a purpose-built drive-thru coffee shop, such buildings cater to pedestrians, provide a sense of place, contribute to the street scene, and allow various types of businesses to come and go as demand changes.  Neighborhood bars, cafes, pharmacies, convenience stores or yoga studios could occupy retail space in a small, multi-tenant retail building just as easily as could a Dunkin’ Donuts.  Instead of a drive-thru and rows of parking, the building could meet Queen City Ave with landscaping and outdoor seating.

The new rowhouses on Vernon Street are just the first of what will likely be many new and renovated buildings catering to middle-class workers at the Rivers Edge and Downtown.  Like those already living in Bakersville, new prospective residents will be looking for a mix of neighborhood businesses and activities that they can walk to and congregate at, not a drive-thru made for commuters passing through their neighborhood.  A small row of neighborhood businesses, which could include a Dunkin’ Donuts, will raise property values and make the neighborhood more attractive; a drive-thru will do the exact opposite.

Pedestrian-oriented retail strip, West Hartford, Conn.

Some might argue that a drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts isn’t the end of the world, and is an improvement over the empty field of pavement on the site now.  The problem, though, is that the drive-thru both sets a bad precedent for future development in the area, and uses up a prominent, gateway site, making more urban-appropriate redevelopment there unlikely for several decades.  Good, urban, walkable development here, even if it’s just a small retail strip, bodes well for continued future redevelopment in Bakersville and southern Downtown.  More retail, apartments, rowhouses, offices, maybe a movie theatre or other major draw will eventually follow.  A drive-thru will likely lead to more drive-thrus.

Times are tough and there’s not a whole lot of new development going on, but the City should stick to its comprehensive, pro-urban Master Plan and not let bad proposals that will hamper positive future development go forward.

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2 thoughts on “Looking forward at the River’s Edge

  1. Good insight. I enjoyed reading this article and hope many more come so as to keep me up to date on Portland’s big brother! Although drastically different in many ways, Portland and Manchester occupy very similar regional roles and have a lot to learn from one another. Keep up the good work.

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