Livable: Midsummer nights (without cars) on Hanover Street

A few months ago, Mayor Gatsas proposed closing Hanover Street to cars, in order to create a temporary pedestrian mall on weekend nights in the summer. The Union Leader explained the proposal last week:

Later this summer, [Portsmouth] will close a portion of Pleasant Street near Market Square on Saturdays from 5 to 9:30 p.m. for events and concerts in the street. …

While Manchester has street closures for parades and the fall chili festival, the city’s Economic Development Office began looking at closing a small portion of Hanover Street near the intersection with Elm Street to create an inviting, pedestrian-friendly area where residents could grab a bite to eat outside, see performers and shop.

The cars in this photo could be replaced with diners, shoppers, bands and street performers on weekend nights this summer if the block is closed to cars. – Photo by Ray Theriault

Last week, though, the Union Leader reported on the concerns of some Hanover Street businesses over the proposal. Business owners were concerned that patrons would not be able to get to the Citizens Bank parking garage, or that they might be unaware of why the street was closed and just avoid the block.

Fortunately, aldermen, city planners, business groups and others have been working with local businesses to try to make the weekend night pedestrian mall work. “Amazingly, this is one of the issues when I speak with young people in the city they mention all the time,” Alderman Garth Corriveau told the Union Leader.

Now it’s up to the Board of Aldermen’s committees on Public Safety and on Job Creation/Retention and Economic Development to move on the idea when they meet tonight.

They should approve the pilot proposal, which has been modified to close Hanover Street between Chestnut Street and Nutfield Lane, the small alley used to access the Citizens Bank garage, on Friday and Saturday nights in July and August.

And they should strongly promote the arrangement to make downtown Manchester even more of a destination.

Portsmouth’s Market Square, already a festive spot year-round, will be closed to traffic Saturday evenings this summer. – Photo by theothermattm

Currently, downtown Manchester lacks the presence to have any sort of festival atmosphere, the kind of thing that exists in Market Square in Portsmouth, on Exchange Street in Portland, or on the Church Street pedestrian mall in Burlington. Downtown bars and restaurants tend to be packed, and the growth of outdoor seating has created more of a nightlife and dining scene downtown in recent years, but there’s very little street activity, aside from crowds moving from place-to-place and a couple of food carts.

Creating a full-time pedestrian mall, even just for the summer, would probably create an underwhelming experience and negatively impact neighboring businesses. But there’s a lot of merit to a weekend nights-only pedestrian mall. And a more festive atmosphere could easily take hold, and grow a more lively downtown scene from there. It will probably happen slowly, but if planned thoughtfully and promoted well, a weekend nights-only pedestrian mall could become a major downtown attraction. The fact that it will be so ephemeral, lasting only two nights a week for a couple months, will make it even more special and could make the activity even more concentrated.

Burlington’s Church Street is one of the most successful pedestrian malls in the country. – Photo by WickedVT

It shouldn’t be hard to find bands, street performers and food carts to fill a block for two nights a week during the summer. And that will be the key–simply closing the street will not create enough of a draw–it needs to feel more like a festival. During the Baines administration, Hanover Street was shut down for a weekend every summer for the Jazz & Blues Festival, which was very well attended and a huge attraction for downtown Manchester. A smaller, more dining-focused version of that could easily be recreated on weekend nights.

The City, Intown Manchester and other groups will need to work together to promote activities and events on the pedestrian-only Hanover Street, so that businesses there aren’t passed over because people aren’t driving down Hanover. Some of the restaurants there are destinations in their own right, but shutting down the street will make the whole block a destination if it’s done right and promoted well. Giving the weekly event a name would also help to promote it: something like Midsummer Nights on Hanover, but better.

Portland’s Exchange Street isn’t closed to traffic, but the city’s tourism and narrow streets give it a festive atmosphere. – Photo by lumierefl

Ideally, Hanover Street would have even more bars and restaurants on it, but there are good ones there as it is, and creating a weekend night festival atmosphere there could make it an even more attractive place for restaurants and bars to open. Hopefully, some of the specialty shops along the block would stay open late as part of the pedestrian mall pilot, as well.

There are a few other spots where a temporary pedestrian mall could work–including even a couple blocks of Elm. Obviously, that would have a bigger traffic impact, but cars could still go around, and the concentration of bars and restaurants would be even greater than on Hanover. Depot and Old Granite Streets could be combined to create a high-profile nightlife and arts area in Gaslight District that would work especially well during events at the arena and ballpark. But that area is well behind Hanover Street in terms of development, and it’s at the fringe of downtown.

Crowds lineup outside Planet Marshmallow on Hanover on a cloudy day for Hippo de Mayo. Imagine the crowds on a car-free Hanover Street on summer nights.

Hanover Street is intimate, already home to several restaurants, and at the heart of downtown. It’s widely seen as the most beautiful and eclectic street downtown. With street performers and activities, it’s easy to imagine a pedestrian-only Hanover Street being a boon for businesses on the block, as well as those nearby throughout downtown. It would be harder for that to happen starting from the Gaslight District. But if the pedestrian-only summer weekend nights on Hanover Street is planned, promoted and executed well, it could easily take off, and spur additional pedestrian-only areas, such as one in the Gaslight District, and a more festive atmosphere throughout downtown in the coming years.

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.


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