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.
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:
The Amoskeag mills made Manchester. They are the most prominent feature of the city as seen from I-293 on the west side of the Merrimack—a low, long skirt to the city’s newer, taller buildings up the hill along Elm Street. Though little manufacturing takes place in the mills anymore (beer from the city’s lone brewpub being one of the last vestiges of production there), they remain crucial to the city’s economy, housing many of its largest employers and best-known businesses. To this day, the Millyard remains the most iconic symbol of Manchester, and the heart of the Queen City.
Yet despite being only a few blocks apart, the Millyard is too far removed from Elm Street and the bustle of downtown. The canals and gates that once surrounded the Millyard are long gone, as are nearly all of the smaller-scale accessory buildings that once lined the canals and filled the spaces between the remaining, larger buildings. In their absence are the scars of Manchester’s urban renewal efforts of the 1970s and 1980s—where 19th industrialism was shrouded in austere Victorian beauty, the 20th century renewal was all business: the ugly, highway feeling of Canal Street and the adjacent rail line, and parking lots and vacant spaces scattered throughout the Millyard.
Arms Park and the Merrimack River are less than a five-minute walk from Elm Street, but none of the routes there pass many—if any—retail establishments, parks or other draws to entice pedestrians. Worse, once past the old boardinghouses (and the recently, very well done, new sidewalks and streetscape improvements along West Merrimack, Middle, Market and Stark Streets), pedestrians must pass through the automobile-oriented wasteland of Canal and Bedford Streets and what feels like the backside of the Millyard. And as bustling as the Millyard is during business hours, there are far too few restaurants, cafes, bars and shops to attract people past Canal Street, and almost no options for those who would like to live in the brick-walled, airy spaces with river and city views.
Currently, the Millyard functions more like a financial district or business park—albeit an especially beautiful one that forms a lovely backdrop for the city—rather than a dynamic district or neighborhood connected to the rest of downtown Manchester. The good news is that there have been plenty of planning proposals, policies and schemes drawn up to better tie the Millyard and river with Elm Street; and it really wouldn’t take much to make that happen.