2012: Mancunian year in review

Today marks the last day of LivableMHT’s first full year online (we went online in February 2011), so it seems like a good time to look back and take stock of what happened in Manchester during 2012. There have been some positive developments in the city over the past twelve months, but also some setbacks and bad policy, especially when it came to funding and investment from the state. Despite all the good things that happened over the past year, 2012 might well be called a year of dashed hopes, but also of big plans for the future. So before we turn to focus on fulfilling those hopes and plans, let’s look back at the year in urban livability in the Queen City.

Starting out

Best Piece of Public Art: "Crosswalk" by Ernesto Montenegro
“Crosswalk” by Ernesto Montenegro won Best Piece of Public Art in the Urban Livability Awards

To celebrate our first anniversary, LivableMHT conducting the Urban Livability Awards poll, in categories including Neighborhoods & Urban Landscape, Architecture, Parks & Open Space, and Looking Forward. Downtown, the North End and Rimmon Heights were home to many of the award-winners, with other winners and runners-up scattered throughout the city.

LivableMHT also looked back at the city’s rich Victorian architectural heritage, inspired by the words of Laura Silverman, a comic and actress in her own right and sister of Sarah Silverman, who explained to New Hampshire magazine what she loves about her home state:

I spent my formative years in the suburbs of the “big” city of Manchester, on a lively, lovely street, in a ’60s-style ranch house with a swimming pool, nestled in amongst the birth of our country – the massive, Victorian homes, stained in deep jewel tones, spooky and romantic with their endless peaks and gables and enchanting wrap-around porches…

A Good Year for Civic Groups Planning Ahead

A number of groups and civic organizations grew or were formed in 2012. The Manchester Food Co-op reached its goal of 500 members in September, and closes the year with more than double its membership at the beginning of the year. The co-op’s current goal is to reach 1000 members, at which point it plans to open a grocery store downtown open to members as well as the general public. If it can double its membership again this coming year, the Manchester Food Coop could be a physical presence in Manchester in 2013.

Citizens for Manchester Schools was founded in response to significant school budget cuts and teacher layoffs in 2012, and it has already made a big splash. Aldermen and school board members, as well as the public and press (including the New York Times) have all taken notice of the group, which seeks to see greater funding for education and schools in Manchester. As supporters of urban livability, LivableMHT agrees that a good school system is crucial to making Manchester an attractive place to raise a family.

There’s not much information about them yet, but Voters for Manchester’s Future is right when they say that the city is at a crossroads. If “ushering in an economic, educational and cultural renaissance” means making the city a stronger urban place to live, work, study and play, then we’re onboard.

Transit FITS & STARTS

GreenDash_promoThe year began with some promising transit developments, including the rebranding of the city’s free downtown circulator bus service as the Green DASH. The bus runs very frequently on a figure-eight loop through downtown and the Millyard from 7am-7pm weekdays.

That news was followed by the very exciting prospect of a downtown rail loop, proposed by Dean Kamen and some downtown business owners, and which may have run on a route similar to that of the Green DASH. Unfortunately, it sounds like the idea has been shelved for the time being at least.

In more disappointing transit news, the all-Republican Executive Council voted to reject a federal grant to study the long-awaited and widely-supported Capitol Corridor commuter rail project, which would link Boston and Concord via Manchester and Nashua. LivableMHT considers it one of the single most foolish and short-sighted policy decisions (among many) over the past two years. Fortunately, however, the recent November elections have produced an apparent 4-1 (three Democrats plus one Republican) majority in favor of accepting the grant money and conducting the study. The study will say for sure, but LivableMHT strongly believes that restoring commuter rail will be key to Manchester’s future, in terms of economy, land use and quality-of-life.

FutureMTA_NORMAL_2012-08-27.pdf
LivableMHT’s vision for a Future MTA system. (Click to expand)

LivableMHT arose in 2011 in large part due to an imagined streetcar system for the city, published at goodgood manchester earlier that year. And in 2012, we followed that up with a look an idealized Future MTA bus system for the city and its suburbs. With better state funding and regional cooperation, a system like we envisioned could help Manchester match the smaller cities of Portland and Burlington when it comes to transportation options.

Growth on the streets & in Neighborhoods

The cars in this photo were replaced with diners, shoppers, bands and street performers on weekend nights this past July & August. – Photo by Ray Theriault

Speaking of transportation, LivableMHT was delighted to see the success of the temporary pedestrian-only configuration of Hanover Street near the Palace Theatre in late summer. Recalling the former Jazz & Blues Festival that used to replace cars with bands and crowds, Hanover Street was packed with performers, diners, shoppers and pedestrians on a few evenings this past July and August. With the support and involvement of neighboring businesses, we hope to see the program expanded and improved this coming summer, with more street performers and outdoor dining.

Studio 550 Arts Center on Elm Street in the Gaslight District – photo from Studio 550

Another area that might benefit from more pedestrian activity is the Gaslight District, which after years of speculation and stagnation finally seemed to start coming alive in 2012. An antiques store, diner and bar were all among the new tenants in the near the long-since demolished Union Station. The enormous Market Basket supermarket also opened just south of the Gaslight District, and while we still think that represents a missed opportunity and underuse of such a valuable piece of land, it is encouraging to see a downtown grocery store. The long-planned Studio 550 Arts Center also opened in late 2012, bringing art galleries, studio space and art classes to a visible corner of a neighborhood that has long been home to scattered artists and craftspeople.

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)

And over on the West Side, the steel is rising at the new headquarters of St. Mary’s Bank. The bank will present a strong “street wall” to Amory & McGregor streets, and creates a much stronger sense of place for those arriving in the neighborhood from the Notre Dame Bridge. Along with the old mills across McGregor Street, the new bank building will provide a sense of urban enclosure that was lost in the late 1960s when the old Notre Dame Flat Iron neighborhood was cleared for urban renewal. The new bank alone won’t recreate a neighborhood, but hopefully it will spur further redevelopment interest in an area close to downtown and employment centers like Catholic Medical Center. Replacing the rest of the half-vacant Rite-Aid strip mall with mixed-use retail, offices and housing is something to hope for in 2013.

Public policy in an election year

LivableMHT generated a lot of responses when it asked whether New Hampshire can continue to rely on tax gimmicks if it wants to remain competitive and attractive. Following a report suggesting that the “New Hampshire Advantage” is waning, we maintain that investment in infrastructure, education and health care will be crucial to making cities like Manchester–as well as Nashua, Concord and Portsmouth–attractive places for businesses as well as young people, who are increasingly looking for an urban lifestyle and leaving the state in large numbers.

Earlier in the year, Will Stewart of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, wrote about the importance of smart growth in urban prosperity. Stewart wrote in June that “New Hampshire’s Queen City is positioned better than most cities to capitalize on our assets, but we must focus on creating a quality of place where people want to live if we want to attract the high end talent and capital necessary to thrive new economy.”

And LivableMHT even got some national press when New York-based City Limits magazine asked us for our take on the role of urban issues in presidential primaries.

Looking ahead to 2013

This November saw the election of a commission to study and propose changes to the city’s charter. With all the political and economic upheaval since the last charter commission, the time seems right to make some changes. In 2013, voters will decide whether to adopt or reject the changes that will eventually be proposed, which could include changes to school district funding, partisan elections, the tax cap, and a myriad other things big and small.

Manchester: New England’s River City. Photo from gn84

Over the summer, New Hampshire’s tourism and travel division launched a new branding campaign. While some considered it too open-ended, we think it works well in a state more varied without the same immediate “brand” as our neighbors in Vermont (cows) and Maine (lobster/lighthouses). It’s certainly better than the old, generic “You’re going to love it here” slogan. So we thought, why not replace Manchester’s equally generic “Birthplace of your American dream” slogan. But a successful civic brand is more than just a slogan: it’s an expression of the place, a summation of the ideas and values of its people, and it has to be accompanied by policy and planning to enforce it. We threw out the idea of “New England’s River City,” with the idea of harnessing the Merrimack River as an urban asset, with greater outdoors opportunities and riverfront dining, and making the city attractive to you people interested in the outdoors but looking for an urban lifestyle.

While Manchester’s city leadership currently seems content to coast, leaders in Nashua recognize the importance of positively branding that city. As the Union Leader wrote in November:

[Adam Winstead of North Star, the firm hired by Nashua to develop and put in place a new branding initiative,] acknowledged concerns from others about the city’s lack of a large entertainment center and the challenge to attract and retain young professionals.

Alderman-at-Large Mark Cookson referred to this “brain-drain,” saying that young and educated graduates typically do not stay in Nashua, but often move away to pursue careers.

Hopefully in 2013, Manchester’s civic leaders will follow their counterparts in Nashua, as well as the local business community, in realizing the importance not just of marketing Manchester, but also implementing policy and planning to make it more attractive to young people and families, and more competitive with cities like Nashua, Portsmouth, Portland and Burlington.

On a lighter note, we still hope to see the centennial of Gill Stadium marked with a return of the Fisher Cats to the stadium for a game or a series. Perhaps a game of vintage baseball at the stadium would be in-store too.

So that’s where Manchester stands as we enter 2013. What do you think was the most positive development in terms of urban livability in Manchester over the past year? How about the most negative? And most important, what do you expect, and hope to see happen in the city in the coming year?

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