Could the armory be reborn as a northern anchor to downtown?

Following the National Guard’s recent failing assessment of to the armory facility on Canal Street, there has been renewed interest in one of the city center’s largest under-development pieces of land. At nine acres, the armory site would be an incredibly valuable piece of land to a developer–and an unparalleled opportunity for the city to mark an impressive urban gateway– if the National Guard decides to find new digs.

Arthur Sullivan of Brady-Sullivan, which owns the eponymous tower next door, thinks the site could be a prime candidate for a major mixed-use development, especially given the influx of young people looking to not just work, but also live downtown. The armory site is a 10-minute walk from Arms Park in the heart of the Millyard and 15 minutes from City Hall, putting it within easy walking distance of thousands of jobs downtown. It’s also on the MTA’s free, frequent Green DASH bus route. The site also straddles the loose boundary between downtown and the North End and Oak Park, a leisurely walk away from Stark Park, Livingston Park, Webster Street and the Currier. That could appeal to young people and families who want to be within walking distance not only of downtown’s jobs, restaurants and nightlife, but of the North End parks and Oak Park’s cultural amenities.

Rendering of Portwalk Place, Portsmouth

Just as important, the armory site is one of the most visible in the city, sitting at the northern gateway to downtown, with almost direct highway access and sitting between Elm, Salmon and Canal streets. That’s where the mixed-use comes in: not just apartments, rowhouses or condos, but ground-floor retail, offices and possibly even an “anchor” retail tenant, something that could draw shoppers downtown. The large site means that ground-floor, street-facing retail spaces could be much bigger than what is commonly found along Elm and Hanover streets downtown. Larger retail spaces could mean that a mixed-use development on the armory site could attract the sort of tenants that currently only exist in shopping malls in the Manchester area. That’s a recipe that has proven successful for mixed-use development in already walkable neighborhoods in PortsmouthWest Hartford, Conn., Somerville, Mass. and elsewhere.

Those cities are all different places than Manchester, so the sort of tenants that might serve as an anchor would likely be different as well. And that’s why the potential of the armory site has LivableMHT not only dreaming of the transformation of downtown Manchester’s northern gateway, but also of the retail landscape of downtown. Manchester has some fine shops downtown, but currently it lags behind even Concord when it comes to retail. A retail anchor, a pleasant walk from the heart of downtown, could bring more walkers and window-shoppers into the city. That alone would make downtown more of a retail destination, but the right anchor could even transform the identity of downtown.

LivableMHT presents one potential vision of redevelopment at and around the Armory site
LivableMHT presents one potential vision of redevelopment at and around the Armory site. In this case, the Art Deco armory building is preserved and renovated.

Armory Site PlanPeterborough-based Eastern Mountain Sports‘ only store in Manchester is located in the Mall of New Hampshire. But what if, as part of larger, mixed-use redevelopment of the armory site, EMS opened a flagship store in downtown Manchester? EMS already has a flagship store in North Conway, but one in either the renovated Art Deco armory building or in a new retail space on the site would offer easy access from I-93 for people heading to the Lakes Region and White Mountains. It would also serve the many outdoor enthusiasts in the Manchester area, and could help promote the city among those looking for a walkable place to live in an urban setting a short drive from hiking, skiing, camping and kayaking venues.

And to make the site–and the city–even more appealing, an EMS flagship on the site could face the Merrimack River and the mighty Amoskeag Falls. The city could work with PSNH to make the remains of Blodget’s canal open to the public for leisurely boating, perhaps renting it to a group like Charles River Canoe & Kayak in Boston, or even EMS, to offer lessons and rent boats for use in the old canal and the river above the falls where the water is calm.

Amoskeag Falls with Blodget’s Canal & Armory in the background – photo by PSNH

That sort of wide-ranging development would fit into Intown Manchester’s goals to bolster downtown living, increase outdoor activities in the city, and to improve the image of the city. It would also fit the branding of the city envisioned by LivableMHT a couple years ago.

Any good mixed-use redevelopment of the armory site, whether it’s like the one envisioned by LivableMHT or another urban-appropriate mix of residential or commercial uses, will require leadership and vision from the City. The City can’t just wait for the National Guard to move; it will need to help them find a new site. The City can’t just accept any offer a developer makes for the city; it needs to ensure that the zoning is in place to make sure any development there makes a positive impression as people enter the city, and caps the northern end of downtown. The City needs to offer a much more urban vision than it did when it happily allowed a supermarket to occupy the other major, under-developed site capping the southern end of downtown a few years ago. The time to redevelop the armory site may be years in the future, but the time to lay the groundwork for a better northern gateway to downtown is now.

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3 thoughts on “Could the armory be reborn as a northern anchor to downtown?

  1. I think it would be a wonderful use of property in the area…as long as the residential is AT LEAST a mix. One thing that irks me more than anything in any downtown development is it is almost always “luxury” or “high-income” residential. If you want young professionals and families, it needs to be more affordable. Not premium. On another note, Brady-Sullivan has expressed interest in the past to build an additional tower on the site of the parking lot near the river, I doubt they’ll allow residential development. But with the other mixed use development you propose…that could help them bring that plan to fruition as well.

  2. Thanks much Michael. Have you thought about where a rail station would make sense? I suspect Boston-bound commuters would include a lot of NorthEnders. The portion of this site west of Canal struck me as a possibility.

    1. I hadn’t thought of that. From what I’ve read, it sounds like the current proposal is that the downtown Manchester commuter rail station would be built at Granite Street. That makes a lot of sense in terms of its central location and that it’s the historic site of the main depot, but due to a lack of thorough planning, there’s not a lot of land there for the multi-modal facility envisioned in the city’s 2010 Master Plan. I believe that there used to be a rail depot at the end of Webster Street, just a couple blocks north of the armory. Assuming the commuter rain line is built and the downtown station is built at Granite Street, I wonder if a future extension could go to the armory site. It wouldn’t be as centrally located as Granite Street or Spring Street (which I believe was the other site studied for a commuter rail station), but the armory site would have the benefit of ample land for transit-oriented development.

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