Envisioning a better Arms Park & how to get there (literally)

New Hampshire may not be getting a casino this year (for better or worse), but that doesn’t mean that cities like Manchester can’t do more to attract visitors, not to mention residents and workers. Last month we wrote about all the good things happening and being planned in downtown Manchester, and how city leaders–beginning with the mayor–need to take more of a, well, leading role in guiding the future of downtown if it’s really going to thrive.

Iconic view up Stark Street to City Hall Plaza from Arms Park past Mill Girl Statue - photo by Brad Danielson
It’s a great view from the Millyard to Elm Street, but there’s not much actually tying the two together – photo by Brad Danielson

One of the major things that city leaders need to promote, we wrote, is a better connection between the Millyard and riverfront with Elm Street and the heart of downtown. This was identified as one of the most important topics at Intown Manchester’s Next Steps Summit in February, and we wrote last month that we’d be talking about that idea more the following week. Well, clearly we’re late on that, but here are some specific ideas of what how that could be accomplished.

We first wrote about the need to bridge the divide–literally the former series of canals–between Elm Street and the Millyard back in September 2011. And since then, we’ve been glad to hear that need mentioned by many other people and organizations–connecting the riverfront, the employment center of the Millyard, and the nightlife and dining center of Elm Street would remarkably transform downtown Manchester.

The riverfront is only about a quarter-mile–only three or four blocks–from Elm Street, but the desolate, highway-like expanse of Canal Street, and the lack of any retail, dining or other attractions along the way makes the distance feel much farther. It’s not a pleasant walk or an easy drive (and parking is tough at both ends) between the Millyard and Elm Street. The free Green DASH bus that loops between the two is great, but in order for the two areas to really feel tied together, there needs to be an enjoyable walking experience along streets that run through the old Amoskeag rowhouses like Spring, Stark and Market. In the block between Canal and Elm, those streets are beautiful, tree-lined and even feature some small businesses and restaurants (though not nearly enough). If the City takes the lead to improve Canal Street and promote more retail and dining options both in the old rowhouses and along the riverfront in the Millyard, development and private investment will follow.

Here’s a satellite image of what the area looks like now:

Canal Street_existing

As you can see, the density of the Millyard and Elm Street is interrupted by the unwelcoming empty space of Canal Street. And of course this aerial photo doesn’t even show how unattractive the few pedestrian crossings of Canal Street, the railroad tracks and Bedford Street are. Who would want to walk down any of the lovely side streets past the old rowhouses to get to the Millyard and riverfront if it means navigating the auto-centric and frankly ugly strip of Canal Street? Especially when the only attraction at the end (aside from a few very good restaurants) is the derelict Arms Park Riverwalk, which has the potential to be a beautiful space if it were kept up.

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Missing bricks in the Arms Park Riverwalk – photo by Brad Danielson
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A narrow strip of grass at the Riverwalk – photo by Brad Danielson

But what might the area look like if the City took charge, and guided development and investment in the area between the Millyard and Elm Street, as well as in and around Arms Park? What would it be like if the City tweaked its zoning and promoted locating restaurants, cafes, bars, shops and boutiques at the street level along the side streets leading from Elm Street and around Arms Park? There’s already a growing number of restaurants right around Arms Park–Cotton, Milly’s and Waterworks–but not a critical mass to draw people to the area and wander around. What if, instead of a vast parking lot and narrow unkempt strip of greenery and bricks along the river, Arms Park featured a large green space, with better access to the river, and maybe even some attractions like a water feature or carousel? And what if half of the current parking lot was replaced with an expanded UNH-Manchester campus (perhaps including a structure to replace the lost surface parking), perhaps with shops or restaurants on the ground floor? You’d probably have more of a 24/7 vibe in the area around Arms Park, as well as a smaller but greener open space flanked by the restaurants already there, as well as new retail and dining options.

Then the area between Elm Street and the Millyard might look more like this:

Canal Street_notes

There would still be plenty of space at Arms Park for major events and festivals, but making the park more of, well, a park, and attracting shops and restaurants, would give the area enough draw to bring people down from Elm Street, and vice versa.

Of course, that would only work if there was a good way of getting to Arms Park from Elm Street and back. That’s why our vision includes not just the area right around Arms Park, but the entire stretch between the river and Elm Street, and from Bridge to Merrimack Streets. Strategically allowing and attracting retail shops and cafes along some side streets could extend some of the intimate but busy atmosphere of Hanover Street across Elm to Stark or Market Streets.

With shops or cafes in some of the old rowhouses, and attractive signage aimed at pedestrians, the city could guide people from Elm Street down Market Street, then across Canal Street past the new Lofts at Mill No. 1 apartments, and down the steps by the Mill Girl statue to the Riverwalk and Arms Park. Of course, even that area would have to be spruced up, replacing some of the shabby paving with bricks and perhaps adding a cafe or retail space on the ground floor near the Mill Girl steps.

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
Stark St is essentially pedestrian-only around the Mill Girl statue, but it needs sprucing up & active uses to draw those pedestrians – photo by Brad Danielson
Commercial Street will probably remain mostly business, but areas around cross-streets like this should be landscaped or feature cafes, for instance - photo by Brad Danielson
Commercial Street will probably remain mostly business, but areas around cross-streets like this should be landscaped or feature cafes, for instance – photo by Brad Danielson

The most expensive investment on the City’s part (though the city could probably get a good amount of federal or state funding) would be in transforming Canal Street from a highway bisecting the city into an urban boulevard, with wide sidewalks, parking, bike lanes and a landscaped median. By combining Bedford and Canal Streets, there would be plenty of space to do all this, while accommodating the railroad tracks in the median. And of course, hugely important would be much better pedestrian crossings, like the ones we showed in our plan above.

That brings us to another point: the City–and especially the mayor–still needs to get behind commuter rail much more strongly. The city’s preferred passenger rail station and transit center used to be the site where Market Basket is, and with some creative design work, it might still be possible to locate a transit center along Granite Street. But it seems more likely that it would be located at the city-owned Bedford Street parking lot. The transit center could be built as part of a new modern tower added to the city’s skyline, with ample parking for commuters and downtown visitors in a garage above, as well as possibly a hotel on top. And that could spur new development in the parking lots along Spring Street, and perhaps even a redevelopment of the old Hampshire Plaza Mall into a true urban shopping center or other downtown attraction, like a movie theater.

Here’s a diagram of how it might all work:Canal Street_diagramsAs in the plan above, the dark red blocks represent new buildings, and the light red blocks represent renovated or expanded buildings. The grey represents new or realigned roads, and the green represents new park space, with some hardscape shown in red representing brick walkways or shared streets, including Stark Street around the Mill Girl statue. This diagram also includes green arrows, showing major pedestrian routes between the Millyard and Elm Street, with the heaviest lines (like those going down Market Street) being the principal routes, and the lighter ones being secondary. The yellow lines represent existing or new ground-floor retail (including restaurants), which is enormously important in getting people to walk around.

Political rally on Franklin Street in what could be Franklin Square Park – photo by marcn

Our plan also includes development of some areas between the Millyard and Elm Street, like the area around Franklin and Market Streets, which we called Franklin Square back when we first discussed it in 2011. One block back from Elm, there are currently two parking lots there, which are lined on three sides with handsome, historic buildings, including boardinghouses and the Carpenter, as well as City Hall Annex and the back of City Hall Plaza. The parking lot closest to City Hall has been used occasionally for rallies, and would make for a nice, quiet park for neighborhood residents, downtown workers having lunch, and still the occasional rally. This would be especially successful if the other lot, between West Merrimack, Franklin and Middle Streets, was developed as a mid-rise, mixed-use building with shops and restaurants facing the new park and the Carpenter Hotel. The smaller parking lots behind City Hall Plaza and TD Bank would also be more attractive development spots once the area feels less like the backside of Elm, and would help draw people to the area between Elm and the Millyard, and ultimately back and forth between the two.

Obviously, these ideas involve a lot of planning, as well as a lot of investment (both public and private), but without leadership from the City, developers will continue to act in a vacuum and the area between the Millyard and Elm will never reach its full potential. Which means that neither the Millyard nor Elm Street will ever reach their full potential. So if Manchester’s leaders want to see the city really soar, then they need to take charge and start expressing a vision for the Queen City.

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5 thoughts on “Envisioning a better Arms Park & how to get there (literally)

  1. What a great location that would be for a downtown train stop. You have easy access to the highway a great base for parking and with some creativity your right you just might have some very valuable sections of land for development.

    I have often wondered why the city isn’t more interested in underground parking. It would be great to see some of the lots you talk about placed under ground where you could increase parking by making several levels and pay for it throught the form of parking revenue and increase green space by turning the surface lot into a park maintained by the parking revenue.

    One more question. Why do you feel developers aren’t willing to take a look at Manchester? There are several prime lots as you have mentioned along with property around the Verizon center and at the intersection of Elm and Salmon St. But no takers, what gives?

    1. Unfortunately underground parking would not work in downtown Manchester because that would go way below the water level. JW Hills and some other buildings nearby all have sump pumps below their elevators because it is below the water level and constantly fills up. Nice idea though, as for the article, taking parking lots and turning them into green spaces is not beneficial for downtown as parking is already limited. Pearl street parking lot is about to become a couple of buildings… as ugly as parking garages are, we need more.

  2. This is a fantastic idea. Unfortunately, I think a big change in the city’s leadership may be required before anything like this could happen. The way things have been the past several years, it feels like we’re more likely to get a big box store downtown than this. Hopefully I’m wrong.

    Is it possible to get a higher-res version of the diagrams? When they open in a new window, the text is still too small to read.

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