Bridging the canal: uniting the Millyard and Elm Street

Iconic view looking up Stark Street to City Hall Plaza from Arms Park past Mill Girl Statue - photo by Brad Danielson

The Amoskeag mills made Manchester.  They are the most prominent feature of the city as seen from I-293 on the west side of the Merrimack—a low, long skirt to the city’s newer, taller buildings up the hill along Elm Street.  Though little manufacturing takes place in the mills anymore (beer from the city’s lone brewpub being one of the last vestiges of production there), they remain crucial to the city’s economy, housing many of its largest employers and best-known businesses.  To this day, the Millyard remains the most iconic symbol of Manchester, and the heart of the Queen City.

Yet despite being only a few blocks apart, the Millyard is too far removed from Elm Street and the bustle of downtown.  The canals and gates that once surrounded the Millyard are long gone, as are nearly all of the smaller-scale accessory buildings that once lined the canals and filled the spaces between the remaining, larger buildings.  In their absence are the scars of Manchester’s urban renewal efforts of the 1970s and 1980s—where 19th industrialism was shrouded in austere Victorian beauty, the 20th century renewal was all business: the ugly, highway feeling of Canal Street and the adjacent rail line, and parking lots and vacant spaces scattered throughout the Millyard.

The canals and rows of curved accessory buildings between the Millyard & Elm Street were removed in the 1960s & 1970s - photo by Randolph Langenbach

Arms Park and the Merrimack River are less than a five-minute walk from Elm Street, but none of the routes there pass many—if any—retail establishments, parks or other draws to entice pedestrians.  Worse, once past the old boardinghouses (and the recently, very well done, new sidewalks and streetscape improvements along West Merrimack, Middle, Market and Stark Streets), pedestrians must pass through the automobile-oriented wasteland of Canal and Bedford Streets and what feels like the backside of the Millyard.  And as bustling as the Millyard is during business hours, there are far too few restaurants, cafes, bars and shops to attract people past Canal Street, and almost no options for those who would like to live in the brick-walled, airy spaces with river and city views.

Currently, the Millyard functions more like a financial district or business park—albeit an especially beautiful one that forms a lovely backdrop for the city—rather than a dynamic district or neighborhood connected to the rest of downtown Manchester.  The good news is that there have been plenty of planning proposals, policies and schemes drawn up to better tie the Millyard and river with Elm Street; and it really wouldn’t take much to make that happen.

In 2005, the City commissioned a planning study and examination of downtown and its potential, completed by Hillier Architecture.  One of the major issues raised by that study was the lack of “overall connectivity” and “isolated sections” of downtown Manchester.  “The lack of streetscape elements along the streets connecting Elm Street with the Millyard have yet to be resolved,” the authors wrote in 2006.   Stark Street between Elm and Canal Streets has been spruced up since that time, with new sidewalks, streetlamps and archways, but continuing down toward the river, even the area around the Mill Girl statue isn’t particular pleasant for pedestrians.

The other recommendations of the study have yet to be implemented at all, but they should be.  And soon—tying the Millyard and Elm Street together is crucial forManchester’s economic future, and will make downtown an even more enjoyable place to live, work or visit.  Any money spent on improvements in this area would easily be offset by increased economic vitality and tourism in the city.

Canal Street as urban boulevard

Proposed reconfiguration of Canal & Bedford Streets as an urban boulevard - from Downtown Study by Hillier Architecture, 2006

The most ambitious and expensive recommendation of the study is to improve Canal Street, itself, by transforming it into an urban boulevard.  The authors offer two possible ways of doing this, but the stronger option is to combine Canal and Bedford Streets with rail (freight, commuter and possibly light-rail in the future) in a landscaped median, with northbound traffic along Canal and southbound along Bedford.  This would allow wider, more attractive sidewalks (and parallel parking) at the base of the boardinghouses along Canal, which could then become home to small shops and cafes.   Similarly, there would be true sidewalks (and parallel parking again) along the Bedford Street mills, which along with the right zoning and encouragement by the City could also house some restaurants and retail establishments at ground level.

Existing & proposed cross-section of Canal & Bedford Streets - from Downtown Study by Hillier Architecture, 2006

Right now, Canal Street operates basically as a highway to bypass Elm Street.  It has always served as the dividing line between the Millyard and the rest of the city, though this division was originally much more engaging, with the curved, continuous wall of brick mills lining an actual canal running along the street. If transformed into an urban boulevard, Canal and Bedford Streets will still be the place where two distinct areas meet, but instead of dividing them, it will once again tie them together as a center of activity and a well-designed urban space.  The urban boulevard will also serve as a complete street, accommodating bicyclists, pedestrians and transit-users, as well motorists.  This will be even more important once commuter rail service to Manchester is restored and Canal Street begins serving as a gateway for residents, workers and visitors arriving by train.

Boardinghouse cross-streets

View of boardinghouse district & cross-streets connecting Millyard & Elm Street - photo by gjs

Improving Canal Street will greatly enhance the boundary between the Millyard and central downtown, but it will be just as important (and cheaper) to address the cross-streets that connect the Millyard with Elm Street.  Only Pleasant, Stark and Spring Streets actually cross Canal Street (Stark Street being pedestrian only between Canal and Commercial Streets), but all the streets between Pleasant and Spring Streets will be increasingly prominent if Canal Street is improved.

Many of these streets—particularly West Merrimack, Middle, Market and Stark, but also one side of either Pleasant and Mechanic—are tree-lined, and feature attractive brick sidewalks and Amoskeag streetlamps as they pass through the historic boardinghouse district between Elm and Canal Streets.  This area, officially and clumsily called the Amoskeag Corporation Housing Historic District (or occasionally called HiDi), is mostly residential, but also home to several offices, though unfortunately hardly any retail or restaurants.  The handsome old armory at the Center of NH, YMCA and the old Carpenter Hotel, once the city’s tallest building, hem in the unusually quaint streets in the middle of the city.  While the area is already lovely, encouraging and allowing small shops and cafes, as well as giving people a reason to pass through it between the Millyard and Elm Street would lend it a liveliness that’s currently missing.

Franklin Square

Political rally on Franklin Street in what could be Franklin Square Park - photo by marcn

Something not mentioned in any planning documents, but which should be considered is developing the parking lots between West Merrimack and Market Streets along Franklin.  One block back from Elm, these lots are lined on three sides with handsome, historic buildings, including boardinghouses and the Carpenter, as well as City Hall Annex and the back of City Hall Plaza.  The parking lot closest to City Hall has been used occasionally for rallies, and would make for a nice, quiet park for neighborhood residents, downtown workers having lunch, and still the occasional rally.  This would be especially successful if the other lot, between West Merrimack, Franklin and Middle Streets, was developed as a mid-rise, mixed-use building with shops and restaurants facing the new park and the Carpenter Hotel.  The smaller parking lots behind City Hall Plaza and TD Bank would also be more attractive development spots once the area feels less like the backside of Elm.

Spring Street, Transit Center & Arms Park

Spring Street—as well as the outer edges of Pleasant and Mechanic—is a considerably less successful but equally important cross-street.  Spring Street is probably the least attractive cross-street, being lined almost entirely with parking lots and garages, but is also the street that leads directly from Elm Street to Arms Park, and which offers the most commanding view of sunset over the Millyard and Uncanoonucs from Elm.  Spring Street already serves as a secondary automobile entrance to the Millyard via Acme Street from the Notre Dame Bridge, and it is the center of the MTA’s Green Dash free, downtown circulator bus, which runs on a figure-eight loop between Elm and Commercial Streets (and is an excellent, frequent service for those getting around downtown during business hours).

Typical boardinghouse-lined cross-street. Unfortunately, all those along Spring Street have been replaced with parking garages and lots.

Spring Street has the potential to be much more of a transit hub in the city and regionally. Though the planned multimodal transit center, which will house the downtown commuter rail station, may eventually end up at the site of the former Union Station near the current Market Basket site or elsewhere, the secondary—and perhaps now most likely—site is the city-owned Bedford Street parking lot, along Spring Street between Commercial and what will hopefully be the Canal-Bedford boulevard.  Obviously, this will make Spring Street a much more important cross-street, as well as making real estate along it more desirable.

If the transit center is eventually sited along Spring Street, it would likely need to be more vertically oriented than it would if located elsewhere in the city, and this would present a rare opportunity for a new, mid- or high-rise tower downtown.  With the transit station, possibly MTA or other transit offices and hopefully a bit of retail on the ground level, there could be several stories of parking, and possibly offices—and maybe even a hotel if we’re feeling ambitious—rising from Canal Street and peering above street level of the Notre Dame Bridge.  This could be a sleek, elegant tower and a welcoming beacon for those arriving in the city.  It would certainly spur development along the street, which the City could more actively encourage ahead of its opening.

View down Mechanic Street with Hampshire Plaza mall on right & Ste. Marie's across the river in the distance - photo by welcometoalville

The drab Hampshire Plaza Mall was recently converted into mostly student housing for NHIA, which is an improvement and brings more young residents to downtown, but it’s not a great long-term solution from an urban standpoint.   The entire mall, which is a single-story along Elm, but with two levels of exposed parking below in the rear, could be replaced with a more modern, interesting shopping mall along the lines of Burlington Town Center in Vermont.  With at least three stories along Elm and street-facing shops at ground-level along Spring Street, the interior could function as an urban, indoor shopping mall with smaller retailers and at least one anchor, perhaps even a movie theatre.

UNH hopes to expand its Manchester campus in the coming years, which will almost certainly require new buildings in the area around Arms Park (a good thing in itself), and the City’s planning documents as well as the Hillier study take this into account.  The Hillier study, however, recommends extending Spring Street from Commercial, where it currently ends—though the view continues—to the river, with new UNH buildings filling much of the present Arms Park parking lot creating an enclosed semi-circular park at the steps to the river.  While this would make the procession from Elm to the river much easier and more pleasant, it has the serious drawback of requiring the removal of the building currently housing Cotton restaurant, which is one of the few smaller-scale accessory buildings left in the Millyard.  It would also drastically reduce the size of Arms Park, which could easily accommodate some new buildings—in addition to being transformed into a true park—but should still remain large enough to host festivals, fireworks and other riverfront events.

Prioritizing Stark & Market Streets

Stark Street is essentially pedestrian-only around the Mill Girl statue, but it needs sprucing up & active uses to draw those pedestrians - photo by Brad Danielson

Instead of removing the Cotton building and waiting for private redevelopment along Spring Street, though, Stark and Market Streets could be prioritized as the major cross-streets between the Millyard and Elm Street. Stark Street extends from the as-yet-unfinished Riverwalk and southern edge of Arms Park through some of the most intimate spaces in the Millyard, including the wide pedestrian steps at the Mill Girl statue, past the rear of the YMCA and the archways over the street as it passes boardinghouses before ending at Elm Street.  Market Street currently runs only between Elm and Canal (with the pedestrian plaza at Elm Street), but with the Canal-Bedford boulevard, it could run from a further revitalized, mixed-use Tower Mill, past shops, restaurants and housing in former boardinghouses, past a possible Franklin Square Park, and ending at the pedestrian plaza at City Hall, which then connects across Elm to the already very successful Hanover Street.

Commercial Street will probably remain mostly business, but areas around cross-streets like this should be landscaped or feature cafes, for instance - photo by Brad Danielson

Already two of the nicest streets downtown, Stark and Market could be considered as part of a single experience with two, adjacent options for traversing the city between Canal and Elm, and extending along a single path (Stark Street) between Canal and the river, as well as along Hanover Street (across from Market) east from Elm.  This would take a little creativity, especially in how to stitch Market and Stark around the Canal-Bedford boulevard, but the area would function well both as a district in its own right and the principal connection between the Millyard and central downtown.

The Old Port, which connects the working waterfront with the central business district in Portland, Me., provides a good example of what a successful Stark-Market Street area could be like.  Like the Old Port, the area could also use an evocative name to interest residents and visitors alike.  I won’t pretend these are great, but something historically relevant like Amoskeag Gateway or Boardinghouse Row could be good.

Making it happen

In addition to all these physical changes, there are a few things the City, Intown Manchester, developers and others could do almost immediately.  The City should do all it can to encourage urban development of open lots and surface parking in the area west of Elm Street, as well as continuing streetscape improvements in the area.  The City and Intown Manchester should work with developers and property owners to encourage better integration of retail and residential in the Millyard, especially around and along the cross-streets connecting it to Elm, in order to make the area a part of downtown beyond business hours.  Right now, as beautiful as it is, the Millyard is too one-dimensional—there needs to be more housing, retail and restaurants to draw people into the Millyard, and the City should work hard to make that happen.

The Old Port in Portland, Me. offers an idea of what could happen--maybe on a smaller scale--in the area between the Millyard & Elm Street - photo by Xmatt

There’s a lot that needs to be done to better tie the Millyard and Elm Street together, but the area has a lot going for it that is lacking in other areas LivableMHT has looked at (including the Arena District and McGregor Street)—here, it’s a matter of tying the two most vibrant (and appropriately zoned) areas of the city together across a mostly pleasant stretch of historic boardinghouses.  Aside from transforming Canal Street, which will be important despite its initial expense, most of the improvements needed to stitch the area together have as more to do with policy changes and incentivizing diversification of uses.  The remaining physical streetscape improvements should be relatively inexpensive and offset by increased tax revenue, both from higher property values and hopefully more restaurants and hotels in the area.

Standing at the base of Stark Street as the Merrimack River rushes by, and looking up through the Millyard and over the leafy boardinghouse streets to the green roof of City Hall Plaza and the gleaming spires of City Hall, the untapped potential of the area is remarkable.

In the near future, we hope to post a more detailed map with better graphics envisioning the proposals described by Hillier, city planners and LivableMHT.  Until then, please take a look at this Google map outlining those ideas:


7 thoughts on “Bridging the canal: uniting the Millyard and Elm Street

  1. Great post and I couldn’t agree more. It’s an extremely awkward part of town and I think the completion of the Riverwalk will be a major catalyst for that area. When people realize that they could be dining on the river, or run/bike the town’s length of it, the development will come.

  2. Great write up and hopefully someday we’ll see many of the idea’s come to fruition. I have never understood why the city doesn’t try and create underground parking at arms park. I know there is lots of concern’s about the mill that once stood there and the possible anthrax contamination at that site but I would that, that would actually make it better and enable the city to apply for super fund money or something. The revenue created from parking fee’s could be used to finance the project and just think how great it would be to add parking while at the same time create green space. A proper downtown river front park could be created to show case many different city events!

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