Things are looking up downtown–now city leaders need to step up

Tower at Lofts at Mill No. 1 – photo from Brady Sullivan

For the first time in its 175-year history, high-end apartments have found a home in the Amoskeag Millyard. New coffee shops and upscale lunch spots have popped up along the riverfront in the Millyard and on Elm Street. The Manchester Food Co-op is moving closer to opening a community-owned natural grocery store downtown. Hippo de Mayo, which has quickly become one of downtown’s biggest events of the year, is just a month away. And the mayor is even talking about the prospects of a downtown movie theater.

Before the new guiding plan for downtown is released, some of the things envisioned at February’s Next Steps Summit are coming to fruition. The summit, attended by over 100 people, sought community input as Intown Manchester prepares to draft a plan to guide the growth of downtown in the coming years. Housing was touted as a catalyst for future growth downtown, and for helping the area grow beyond its dining, nightlife and entertainment base.

As one of the city’s major developers, Arthur Sullivan of Brady Sullivan, said: “Once more people start living downtown again, you are going to see a downtown renaissance, and it won’t just be restaurants.

Last month, Brady Sullivan opened the Lofts at Mill No. 1, 110 high-end apartments in the first mill building built for the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, at the base of Market Street in the Millyard. Just across the river, in the enormous old Mill No. 11, now known as Mill West, Brady Sullivan is adding another 300 upscale apartments, with the first 96 planned to go on the market within six months.

Waterworks Cafe with photos of Millyard towers in the background – photo from Waterworks Cafe

As Sullivan said, people are returning from the suburbs, and looking to live in dynamic, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods; and the Millyard apartments should be especially appealing to professionals who already work downtown or in the Millyard. He repeated something else that was mentioned at the Next Steps Summit: that retail shops–currently underrepresented compared to restaurants and bars–will be more inclined to open downtown once there are hundreds of people living in the nearby Millyard apartments.

As Aurore Eaton, executive director of the Manchester Historic Association, said at the Lofts ribbon cutting ceremony last month: “The Millyard has transformed itself several different times in our history. This is the latest transformation. This makes it more of a neighborhood, not just a place to go to work and go home at night.”

Cafe la Reine next to Dancing Lion Chocolate on Elm St – photo from Cafe la Reine

The addition of two new coffee shops downtown is another sign of growing interest in the area, and should make it more attractive to young people. Just a short walk from the Lofts at Mill No. 1, Waterworks Cafe opened on the riverfront side of the Waumbec Mill building last month. The upscale counter-service cafe offers not only coffee, but breakfast and lunch options such as duck confit salad and bison burgers. Up on Elm Street, Café la Reine, playing on Manchester’s nickname as the Queen City, is slated to open tomorrow. The coffee shop promises to be the sort of hip cafe seen in cities like Boston, Portland and even Hartford.

Speaking of what young people are looking for, Gary Chynoweth of Dyn, one of the Millyard’s largest tech firms, added that “today’s young professionals want convenience, and they put a premium on that. If you live at a place that’s convenient, you don’t need a car.

City Leaders need to guide growth

And that gets to what the next step is from here. Private developers and small businesses are already doing their part to make downtown and the Millyard more than a place to work and go out. Now, it’s a question of what city leaders will do to push the area forward. The new downtown plan should help them, but Manchester needs city leaders–especially a mayor–with a strong vision to guide growth and ensure that new development is in keeping with the urban nature of downtown and the Millyard.

In addition to a master plan to guide the future of downtown and the Millyard, the City needs to lead when it comes to infrastructure development, smart zoning regulations, and beautifying the city. As Pamela Coucher, deputy director of Planning and Community Development in the city,  said at the Next Steps summit:

We need to look at the benefits of aesthetics, and make sure aesthetics are incorporated into our design and development. Amenities are not just ‘wants’ that we can’t afford. They set the stage for future businesses, and employees who will want to come to Manchester because it is an attractive city.

More streets in Manchester should be beautified to match the charm of Hanover St. – Photo by Ray Theriault

If downtown is really going to take off as the economy recovers, then the City is going to have to listen to another of the major topics mentioned at the Next Steps summit: tying Elm Street and the heart of downtown to the Millyard and riverfront. We’ll go into some ideas for that in more detail next week, but the City could start by beautifying the walk from Elm Street through the Millyard to the river, and by allowing and encouraging ground-floor retail and restaurants in the old Amoskeag rowhouses along the way.

Manchester also needs to do more–much more–to reduce the reliance on cars (and reduce the prominence of parking lots downtown) and give people commuting options. The free Green DASH bus that loops through downtown and the Millyard is a good start, but it needs to run in the evenings–at least on the weekends. And city leaders–starting with the mayor–need to step up their support for the Capitol Corridor commuter rail project. Nashua’s city leaders are behind the project, and with proposed stops downtown and at the airport, Manchester stands to gain tremendously from a rail connection to Nashua, Concord and Boston. And as Portland is looking into a bike sharing network, Manchester hasn’t even invested in bike lanes or bike racks downtown.

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
The steps around the Mill Girl statue on Stark Street should be spruced up and lined with shops or cafes. – photo by Brad Danielson

Of course, these things all cost money, and some of these projects aren’t cheap, but the City needs to invest in itself if it wants private developers and businesses to continue investing in Manchester. We’ve discussed in the past why we think the tax cap is such a bad idea–and it extends beyond the ongoing education funding crisis in the city–because it prevents the City from making the necessary investments to secure a more prosperous and vibrant future.

The new apartments and coffee shops popping up Downtown and in the Millyard a promising sign as spring rolls around and the economy continues to improve. But if Mayor Gatsas expects a private developer to open a movie theater downtown, something he recently said would “change the complexion of the entire city,” he needs to have the City step up and take the lead. Private developers and businesses won’t invest in a city that doesn’t invest in itself; they won’t continue to build in a city that doesn’t keep up with the infrastructure in other cities.

It’s just a month until Hippo de Mayo, the big taco festival put on by the Hippo. If Manchester wants to see more events like it, and more people on the streets downtown and in the Millyard even when there isn’t a festival, it needs to demand that city leaders heed the advice of the Next Steps Summit and begin to lead the charge toward a stronger downtown.

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7 thoughts on “Things are looking up downtown–now city leaders need to step up

  1. I think many cities are struggling to find funds right now and honestly until the we recover from the recession and property values rebound Manchester’s budget just isn’t going to have the excess needed to make these bigger investments (that I agree we need). The tax cap may not be the best idea but raising taxes in the middle of difficult economic times will not help. I think right now the city is at the mercy of national economic trends.

    Ted Gatsas loves Manchester and while I agree I think he should have more of a forward looking vision I think he’s been a very good mayor of a city in a recession.

    1. No question that Mayor Gatsas loves the city–we would never question his affection or concern for Manchester, just his vision for its future. That’s not to say that a mayor can’t become more visionary–just look at Mayor Menino who was criticized for having no vision for Boston twenty years ago–but so far Mayor Gatsas hasn’t shown an interest in planning for the city’s future on a grand scale. Instead, we’ve seen more piecemeal plans–some good and some truly lost opportunities.

      Still, the economy is beginning to recover, and without the investments being made in other cities, Manchester is going to fall behind rather than being poised to benefit during better economic times. Manchester needs to plan now and prepare for its future; yes, that will almost certainly mean some higher taxes, but from better schools to more attractive streets, it will position the city for future prosperity.

  2. What a refreshing article to read! This topic has been on my mind since returning to NH in 2006. Now, as a new business owner in the Millyard, I am excited to be part of the solution. Be on the lookout for “yoga in the park” this summer.

  3. Your article makes so many great point and I certainly appreciate the time and effort you put in to writing and updating your posts. Manchester is at a cross roads. I appreciate the effort Mr. Gatsas puts in and believe he loves the city too but unfortunately he I also agree Manchester lacks a vision, where is the city headed what does it value as its future priorities. It would be very valuable to see an outline, a list of priorities. Something we can all judge and monitor as the city works to accomplish those items. Manchester is loosing quality residents because let’s face it out school system isn’t what it needs to be! The free downtown bus is a joke save the money and install bike lanes and free bike rentals instead. Restore the funding for an economic development director and staff that office. It feels like we are stuck in a rut instead of driving full force to a bright future. I am not sure what would change that but something needs to give.

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