Livable: Growing promise in the Arena District

With the budget cuts and some pretty uninspired development proposals, the news coming out of the City and developers has been tough lately–unlovable, you might say.  It may not be as exciting as a new, pedestrian-oriented, urban development, but last week the Manchester Planning and Community Development Department reposted the 2004 Arena District Urban Design Guidelines “due to increased requests and interest.”  That’s some good news, for sure.

The design guidelines, incorporated into the city’s zoning in 2003, call for a pedestrian-oriented group of small districts designed specifically to attract new residents, interesting shops, and a vibrant nightlife to complement the Verizon Wireless Arena.  The renderings and recommendations in the guidelines are exciting on their own, but news of increased requests and interest is very promising.

Perspective rendering looking up rehabbed Old Granite Street (Gaslight District) toward arena

The Arena District, which consists of the more familiar Gaslight and Warehouse districts and the Commons District, serves as a major gateway to downtown Manchester from Granite Street and I-293, and to a lesser extent from southern Elm Street.  The area was also the long-planned location of an intermodal transit facility, which would have served as an additional gateway for commuters and visitors via train and bus, as well as being a hub for the local transit system.  Now that the Market Basket is being built on the site, the transit facility will likely be located elsewhere, but the area will continue to draw residents and visitors alike to the area.

The three sub-districts, which flank the arena on three sides, are distinct but unified by more than their proximity to the arena.  They all serve as important gateways to downtown, and are composed primarily of a mix of open parcels and buildings that could stand some enhancement.  They also represent the last major areas of downtown waiting to be redeveloped.

Hillsborough County North Superior Court renovation rendering; from Lavallee Brensigner Architects

The Commons District, adjacent to Veterans Park (originally called Merrimack Common), is currently the busiest area in the Arena District.  Most people attending events at the arena pass through the Commons District to and from other destinations in central downtown.  The design guidelines suggest that the block of Central Street facing Veterans Park would be ideally suited for residential development.  Relatively few of the buildings on the block are of much architectural or historical merit, so it represents a rare opportunity for a developer to propose a block-wide project downtown.  The extensive renovation of the Superior Courthouse, which faces the back of the park, should make the area even more attractive.

"Crosswalk" sculpture by Ernesto Montenegro to be located in the Gaslight District; from R. Michelson Galleries

The Gaslight and Warehouse districts are more similar, and probably more familiar to most residents as there have been discussions amongst city planners and officials of redeveloping them for some time.  The Gaslight is especially prominent, occupying the southwest corner of Granite and Elm Streets, and has already seen some public and private investment.  A few restaurants and bars have gone into recently rehabbed buildings, the City installed the distinctive Victorian-style Amoskeag streetlights, and the corner of Granite and Old Granite Streets will soon be home to one of the most interesting pieces of public art in the city.  The two districts, tied together, offer an opportunity for a funky, charmingly gritty but still inviting counterpoint to downtown north of Granite Street.

The Gaslight represents one of the most intact collections of buildings downtown.  It’s also surprisingly hidden, since only one traditional, multi-story block building remains along Elm Street.  That building, which is currently for sale, is apparently undergoing some sort of restoration (bins full of construction debris were recently seen outside), which bodes well for other structures in the district and for new development on open or underused parcels facing Elm Street.  Inside the Gaslight, though, are many impressive old buildings, ranging from quaint Victorian shops on Old Granite to sprawling warehouses on Depot Street.  A few of these buildings have been rehabbed, but many are awaiting renovations and conversions to more active uses.

Rendering of rehabbed buildings along Old Granite Street, Gaslight District
Rendering of rehabbed platforms along Manhattan Lane, Warehouse District

Like the Gaslight, the Warehouse District is comprised of several old buildings, but with more intact structures lining Elm Street.  Some of these, including the Van Otis building, have been given some pretty unfortunate facade treatments over the years, but a walk down any of the side streets reveals their potential.  The back side of the district faces the serene Valley Cemetery, which is currently undergoing preservation and restoration, and could make the Willow Street frontage an attractive spot for residential development.

Perspective rendering of rehabbed Manhattan Lane (Warehouse District) looking toward arena

The design guidelines also note the former rail line that ran along Manhattan Lane between Elm and Willow Streets and the old loading docks facing it as a unique opportunity for shops, restaurants, and artist and craftworker space.  With inevitably higher rents along Elm Street, the Manhattan Lane frontage could provide space for up-and-coming craftspeople and shops.

Van Otis chocolate bakery and Purely Wood furniture-makers are two excellent examples of retail mixed with visitor-friendly light-manufacturing already existing in the Warehouse District, as are artist and creative studios in the adjacent Gaslight District.  Fortunately, the zoning specifically allows and encourages such uses in the Arena District, and the buildings there are especially well-suited for them.  The Civic Center & Gateway Corridor study of the area from 2002 called for attracting a microbrewery to the neighborhood, and these sorts of manufacturing-retail combinations would go a long way in attracting visitors, diners, shoppers and residents to the southern end of downtown.

Varick's hardware building, 24 Depot Street, Gaslight District; apparently for sale

The design guidelines and zoning provisions for the Arena District are all good stuff, aimed at keeping the area dense, walkable and urban.  The zoning and design guidelines require buildings to abut the sidewalk with no setback; prohibit both street-facing surface parking and parking garage frontage at the street-level along major streets; allow light-manufacturing, craftworker and artisan lofts, and prohibit auto-intensive uses; specify minimum height requirement for new buildings; and require a design review for all projects in the district.  LivableMHT will discuss the specifics of the zoning and design guidelines for the area, and look at how similar strategies might be used elsewhere in the city in future posts.

Elevation of Union Station (demolished 1962); current site of Market Basket development

It remains to be seen what impact the Market Basket development on the former Rockwell site will have on the adjacent Gaslight and Warehouse districts.  The site was long the home of Manchester’s muscular, Romanesque Union Station, and was the City’s preferred location of an intermodal transit station and accompanying dense, walkable development, including an urban supermarket.  While the Market Basket will certainly fulfill a downtown need and draw shoppers to the area, denser, more urban development on the site seems unlikely.  The area is also less likely to benefit from train and bus travelers entering the city, but the arena will continue to be a major draw even for transit commuters arriving elsewhere downtown.  Constructing even a small, street-facing retail building at the corner of Elm and West Auburn Streets on the Market Basket site could soften the long stretch of low-lying development and provide a better hinge where the Gaslight and Warehouse districts meet.

It has been a decade since the Gaslight District was first conceived, and nearly eight years since the Arena District was incorporated in the zoning ordinance.  Development in the area has been slow since that time, but recent public infrastructure investment and renovations to private buildings have made the area more attractive.  The district is poised to be an interesting, charmingly gritty area tied to but distinct from central downtown.  Renewed interest in the area is very promising on its own, and encouraging for further growth in the city.

This post is one in an ongoing LivableMHT series, Livable/Unlovable, that comments on proposals, projects and other topics that are either good (Livable) or bad (Unlovable)  from a livability/urban development viewpoint.


9 thoughts on “Livable: Growing promise in the Arena District

  1. Very professional work and I enjoy reading these articles. Keep up the good work. Also I am happy that there is some more interest in making the arena district better.

  2. As one of the creative studios currently living and working in the proposed Gaslight District, I read your article with great interest. Manchester Mills, directly across from the new Market Basket, is the home of a number of designers, artists and craftspeople. Our diversity can be found down any number of its maze-like hallways. Pottery, jewelry, mixed media arts, glass blowing and cabinet makers – we’re part of a growing number of creatives making the proposed Gaslight District our home. This plan is an exciting improvement to our corner of the city.

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