Livable: St. Mary’s Bank & re-urbanizing McGregor Street

There’s some exciting news about one of the West Side’s dreariest plots of land: the shopping mall, bank and parking lot at McGregor and Amory Streets.

St. Mary’s Bank, the first American credit union, is planning to build a new headquarters in front of their existing main branch in the West Side neighborhood that has always been their home.  The existing, two-story 1969 building, which replaced an elegant 1925 building on about the same site, will be demolished once the new, three-story bank is completed.  The earlier marble bank was demolished as part of the complete removal of an area once known as the Flat Iron District or McGregorville in the late 1960s in one of the worst examples of urban planning anywhere in the city, which is astonishingly still touted as an “improvement” on the Manchester Housing & Redevelopment Authority’s website.

The new building, in addition to providing more height to the neighborhood, will also be significantly closer to McGregor and Amory Streets, restoring a vital urban wall that has been missing for nearly a half-century.  On a more poetic note, the graceful curve of the new building, designed by Lavallee Brensinger Architects of Manchester, recalls the handsome 1925 building.

Aerial view of Notre Dame Flat Iron District (a.k.a. McGregorville), late 1950s – photo by George L. Durrett from “Franco-American Life & Culture in Manchester”

The news is particularly exciting for LivableMHT as it comes at a time when we are beginning to look at how the desolate and mostly vacant Rite-Aid shopping mall, bank and parking lot might be redeveloped as a vibrant, urban neighborhood befitting such a prominent site.  Between its proximity to downtown, adjacency to major employers like CMC and the beautiful Lafayette and Simpson Parks with their views of downtown, a 2006 study recommending the promotion of the area as a corporate/institutional corridor, and the addition of several hundred apartments at Mill West, the land that was once the Flat Iron District seems especially poised for urban-appropriate redevelopment.

Robert B. Perrault’s 2010 book, Franco-American Life & Culture in Manchester, New Hampshire: Vivre La Difference, includes a loving history of the old Flat Iron neighborhood, emphasizing the importance of density and street life to the liveliness of the neighborhood.  Reading about the vibrancy and dynamism of that long-gone neighborhood and looking at the dreary expanse of asphalt that now occupies the site highlights the importance of St. Mary’s Bank restoring a sense of urbanism to even a single corner.

The proposed building and site plan are not perfect–there could be less open space in front of the bank, parking on the side could be replaced with additional tenant space, and the entrance and sidewalk could better address the corner–but it is an enormous improvement over what exists presently, and if the plan is implemented as proposed it can be improved and expanded upon easily in the future.

Aside from constructing the new building much closer to the road, another major plus in terms of urban planning, is the restoration of a roadway along the front of the plaza connecting with Amory Street, which is needlessly wide and anti-pedestrian below the parks.  It may seem minor, but removing the dumpsters that clutter along the sidewalk there and connecting the roadway will not only remove an eyesore, but also slow down traffic along Amory Street and make the side of the property more attractive and inviting to pedestrians and motorists.

The new Notre Dame Pavilion at CMC (foreground) and restored urban density at CMC, and the drab, suburban-style plaza and current St. Mary’s Bank (top right) – photo from Stratton Brook

The new roadway along the front of the plaza also creates the framework for a future public street between Amory Street and the former Wayne Street, which could be restored between McGregor Street and Notre Dame Ave along the side of CMC.  Ideally, this would be done as part of a redevelopment of the entire plaza, replacing or building on top of the plaza to create frontage–maybe shops and restaurants–along Lafayette Park, and developing the parking lot with a garage with ground-floor retail and maybe some offices or apartments, as one possibility.  There are plenty of good examples throughout New England of new development projects being built on underutilized urban land like the current plaza site.

The new St. Mary’s Bank makes an more urban future for the area much more attainable, but it’s also clear that it would better if the bank was designed as part of a longer-term master plan for the two parcels of land occupied by the bank, plaza and parking lot.  An even better master plan would take a more comprehensive look at revitalizing and improving the whole neighborhood around McGregor and Amory Streets.

Notre Dame neighborhood before demolition, looking down Amory Street toward Mill West from Simpson Park – photo from the Library of Congress

First, the City should revise the zoning in this area to promote re-urbanization, density, and mixd-use and pedestrian-oriented development.  CMC is largely built out and has restored a sense of an urban wall along Main Street south of Foundry Street, and the mills east of McGregor Street are already appropriated zoned as Amoskeag Millyard Mixed-Use District (AMX).  The two parcels beneath Lafayette Park where the plaza and bank now sit and which were once the heart of the Flat Iron District, are inappropriately zoned as General Business District (B-2), which is the same, suburban-style zoning that exists along South Willow Street; they should be rezoned as either Neighborhood Business District (B-1), which would promote mixed-use, street-facing buildings and denser development, or probably even more appropriately as Central Business District (CBD), which covers downtown and calls for “uses that stabilize the downtown by enhancing its architectural heritage, and which create a viable pedestrian environment supported by the availability of public transit and by centralized and satellite parking structures.”

Once the area has been rezoned, landowners, prospective developers, neighborhood residents and businesses, and the City should take a close look at how the area could be built out in as urban a way possible and the role played by public infrastructure at the base of the Rimmon Heights plateau.  The plaza, bank, Mill West (especially its enormous parking lot), Pariseau High-rise, the parks, and perhaps even Notre Dame Ave along with Amory and Kelley Streets east of Dubuque or so should be looked at as part of a master plan for the area similar to and overlapping with the Rimmon Heights neighborhood plan from five years ago.  LivableMHT has already begun looking at one very schematic plan for the area, but there are plenty of alternatives and any plan needs to be built upon the input of neighbors, businesses and developers along with the City.

In the meantime, the St. Mary’s Bank building is a good start.  Hopefully, the project will provide the momentum and vision needed to see the entire area redeveloped so it can realize its immense potential as a highly desirable urban neighborhood.

Former St. Mary’s Bank building, Amory & Main Streets (about where the closed liquor store is now), built 1925, demolished ~1970 – photo by Eric Sanford
Rendering of proposed St. Mary’s Bank building by Lavallee Brensinger Architects recalling the graceful curve of the 1925 building

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


8 thoughts on “Livable: St. Mary’s Bank & re-urbanizing McGregor Street

  1. Once there was even a movie theater in that angle, one of the many that downtown Manchester used to have. Now there isn’t even a cinema within city limits–if you have no car, you can’t get to our Depression Era ancestors’ favorite escape, these days.

    1. That’s a great point, Joan. As awful as the destruction of the old Flat Iron District was, the good thing about the site now is that it’s big, open, desirable, and no one will miss the plaza if it goes. In addition to office space, housing and retail, the site is big enough and would probably benefit from having a strong anchor to attract people there. That could be a big retailer of some sort to draw shoppers, but I think it would be even more successful and exciting if it was something like a movie theatre.

      The Rimmon Heights Neighborhood Initiative document mentions that it would mutually beneficial if the Majestic Theatre, located on a side street near Ste. Marie’s, relocated to a more prominent spot in the neighborhood. Personally, I think it would be great to see them open a combination cinema-live performance theatre space either in the Flat Iron or somewhere up in Rimmon Heights.

      Red River in Concord is a good example of a local, independent, upstart movie theatre operating in an urban setting in New Hampshire. Plenty of other cities and towns in the state have downtown cinemas, and while one would be great downtown, it would also be a huge boon as a destination in the West Side.

  2. Yes! And with the parks there being reconnected to it all, the dumpsters being taken out and so on, there could be a real opportunity for cultural events IN the park, connecting with the community — sort of like what’s been done with Eagle Square in Concord. If we could — and this is probably a hopeless dream — get our own West Side farmers’ market going, as well as some decent retail, to replace the defunct (and dire!) grocery store in the plaza. Right now it’s sad, but the fact that it wasn’t always that way is hope that it doesn’t have to always be that way, either.

    1. I completely agree–I’d love to see a street continued along the lower, long side of Lafayette Park between Amory and Wayne Streets with some businesses, especially cafes and restaurants, facing the park. Manchester has a lot of nice parks, but Lafayette is one of the most beautiful in my mind. With the sweeping views of downtown, adjacency to Ste. Marie’s, the sloping lawn, mature trees and statues, it’s really a prime spot in the neighborhood and a beautiful gateway to that part of the city. Getting more activity in Lafayette and Simpson Parks would be wonderful, as would getting more activity–shops and so on–right around and below it.

      Don’t think a West Side farmers’ market is a hopeless dream, though. In fact, it’s already happening: the International Farmers’ Market sets up shop in Lafayette Park Wednesday afternoons 3-7pm: I haven’t been myself, but I believe much of the food sold at the market is actually grown right in Manchester:

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