St. Mary’s Bank & the future of the West Side

Rendering of the new St. Mary’s Bank at the corner of McGregor & Amory streets – image from St. Mary’s Bank (Lavallee Brensinger Architects/Harvery Construction)

Mike Cote of the Union Leader has a wonderful piece in Sunday’s paper about the topping-out ceremony at the new St. Mary’s Bank headquarters on McGregor Street. The new building, like the old St. Mary’s Bank that anchored the Flat Iron District on the West Side until 1970, will front the street and restore a sense of urban form to the corner of McGregor and Amory streets.

LivableMHT discussed the history and potential of the site and surrounding neighborhood when we first heard about plans for a new St. Mary’s headquarters last summer. Since then, we’ve watched the steel go up until last week’s topping-out, and it’s clear that the new building will be a huge improvement over the current credit union headquarters, built in 1969.

Flat Iron District before demolition, looking down Amory Street toward Mill West from Simpson Park – photo from the Library of Congress

While the new building will be elegant, with a graceful curve echoing the original 1925 bank headquarters, it alone will not undo the damage caused by the wholesale destruction of the Flat Iron District in 1970. As Mr. Cote writes:

[The wrecking ball destroyed] an elegant building that fell victim to “urban renewal” that erased the Flat Iron neighborhood on Manchester’s West Side. Planners thought a shopping center strip mall would be superior to a collection of mom-and-pop businesses and city streetscapes. They “traded up” … [to] a discount store with a sea of parking spaces.

Rendering of St. Mary’s Bank from Rite-Aid plaza with Mill West in background – image from St. Mary’s Bank

It will take more than filling in the corner of that parking lot to bring back the dynamic neighborhood, full of local merchants and apartments, that Mr. Cote writes about. St. Mary’s has shown its dedication to the West Side neighborhood that has been its home for over 100 years. It has invested in the burgeoning Rimmon Heights neighborhood just above the former Flat Iron District, and by building its new headquarters in the neighborhood as opposed to downtown or elsewhere, it is continuing that commitment.

It will be harder to convince the owner of the strip-mall and half the parking lot, Pennsylvania-based Rite-Aid, to act in the best interest of the neighborhood. But between the new bank headquarters, the recent growth at CMC next door, and the planned conversion into apartments of Mill West across the street, property values may increase to the point that Rite-Aid no longer wants to sit on a half-empty strip mall and oversized parking lot.

Photo of the steel frame of the new St. Mary’s Bank from October 29, 2012. It’s easy to imagine mixed-use development restoring a neighborhood to what is now a strip-mall and parking lot behind the new bank. – photo from St. Mary’s Bank

The City should rezone the property, which currently has the same zoning as South Willow Street and other suburban areas. That will ensure that dense, mixed-use development will eventually replace the out-of-place suburban-style strip mall that now sits between downtown and one of Manchester’s densest neighborhoods, and prevent out-of-state landlords from continuing the mistakes of 40-year-old urban renewal schemes.

The new St. Mary’s Bank makes it more likely that other, more urban redevelopment may follow in the years to come. Mr. Cote shares that sentiment in closing his piece:

Perhaps the next chapter of the “La Caisse Populaire, Ste-Marie” will usher in a brand of urban renewal that does a better job respecting the neighborhood’s past and understanding how its future might be best served by reclaiming its roots. That would be something to bank upon.

We certainly hope so.

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
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