The Union Leader reported last week that developer Dick Anagnost, most famous recently for his work on the Rivers Edge complex, is hoping to have a state liquor store completed on southern Elm Street by the end of the year. The proposed liquor store is being touted as both good for local businesses–since downtown restaurants and bars will have easy access to liquor and wine–and a positive sign of interest in retail near downtown. Both those things are good news.
But the liquor store, as proposed, leaves a lot to be desired. The site, near the intersection of Elm Street and Brown Ave, had previously been part of the Rivers Edge project, which promised to bring a sense of urban density and mixed-use development to the southern end of Elm Street. The Elliot at Rivers Edge has the potential to spur truly urban redevelopment in the area of southern Elm Street, but not if drive-thrus and suburban-style standalone stores move in first.
Downtown Manchester was marred by a suburban-style strip-mall for decades before the Verizon Wireless Arena replaced it. Now, there’s an enormous Market Basket supermarket set back from Elm Street behind a huge parking lot. It’s good to see a grocery store downtown, but this is the wrong pattern of development. For downtown to thrive, and for small businesses to be successful along southern Elm Street, Manchester needs to demand that new buildings be built up to the street not behind parking lots, that they cater to pedestrians as much as motorists, and that there is a mix of housing, retail, dining and so on, not single-use buildings like on South Willow Street.
We’re far from teetotalers here at LivableMHT (in fact, we’ve written about our agreement with a 2002 study that called for a microbrewery in the nearby Gaslight District), and a state liquor store could be a strong anchor and good retail neighbor on southern Elm Street. But it needs to be done right: it needs to be built up to the road, with parking at the rear or on the side, similar to the CVS built a few years ago in downtown Derry.
And speaking of that CVS, the new liquor store needs to look less like it. The Union Leader says that the liquor store “design includes gables and clapboard siding to render a New England feel to the building.” But where in downtown Manchester is there clapboard siding or gabled roofs with dormers? Downtown Manchester is brick, stone and metal–a state liquor store along Elm Street should either pay homage to the old storefronts of the area, with a glass front along the sidewalk, or feature a more innovative and modern design. What it shouldn’t be is a clapboard building set back from Elm Street behind a parking lot.
The first new buildings along southern Elm Street and around the Rivers Edge will have a huge impact in determining future redevelopment of the area. Smart, mixed-use or at least pedestrian-friendly and interesting buildings built up to the sidewalk will mean more people walking by, more shops and restaurants going in, and denser, more traditional development to follow. A strip-mall or standalone single-use building behind a parking lot will lead to another Second Street or South Willow Street.