July 21, 2010

Vision mapping a downtown mecca for commerce, community

The above rendering by UK Architects of Hanover is one of several unveiled recently to the Downtown Committee showing what could be done with a parcel of town-owned property that is currently a decrepit, underused parking lot. The row of red buildings could be retail space or a conference hotel. The tree-lined structure to the right is a two-story parking garage the size of a football field, and the roof could actually be used as a recreational field or skate park. The town’s existing bike path runs to the left of the red buildings and connects at the far end with the town’s Little League field. Other configurations included a possible gym/fitness center or space for a grocer or cafe, and vendor booths along the bike path to house the newly launched farmers market.
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Maybe it's true, that you can't always get what you want. But as disciples of Oprah will tell you, “the law of attraction” and making your own destiny begin with having a clear and concrete vision, preferably on paper.
So when Stu Arnett presented a series of renderings depicting how a parcel of town land might look if it were developed as a hub of activity and parking, everyone knew it was more of a vision quest than a blueprint.
Still, the idea of a two-story parking garage with a green roof that doubles as an athletic field backing up to a three-story hotel with a conference center, gym, cafe, whole foods grocer and high-tech office complex, all spilling out to the existing Rail Trail bike path, scattered with vendor booths for the downtown farmer's market faithful and coinciding with a pedestrian walkway that leads directly to the Little League Field, is hard not to get excited about.
“The plans were exciting, mainly because they show a vision of what might be,” said Gordon Graham, chair of the Downtown Committee. “It shows how a fairly large parcel could be developed in stages to help the downtown grow. It's preliminary, but exciting.”
Currently Abbott Court is a parking area just off West Broadway that is rarely used except for spillover from the Halligan Tavern or nearby apartments. Over time, police have patrolled the area after reports of teens “partying” in the corners of the weedy lot.
A steep stairway leads up from the lot to the bike path, creating enough of a slope that architects were able make creative use of the space.
If the right customer came along – perhaps a hotel chain – looking for some downtown real estate, it's a visionary map that could certainly become reality, said Stu Arnett, who is contracted by the town to work on economic development projects.
“We've already started to look for grant sources. In that case, we'd need to get some help from the town to get it moving. The town would be responsible for roads and walkways and the private side would take care of the building,” said Arnett.
Arnett conceded that every ambitious project begins with a vision, but he stressed that the purpose of the renderings is to see something actually come of it.
“There are all sorts of possibilities. It's a huge parcel, and right now it's under used. The drawings show that any number of things could work – and they also give you a sense of what might not work,” said Arnett. “For example, if you build up too much along the bike path, it begins to feel closed in. You would lose that sense of openness. Finding the balance, and the right combination of elements, is what we're striving for.”
Graham will act as liaison to the Economic Development Task Force, still assembling members, which the council last week approved as a way to bring together various committees and boards already involved in other projects. The idea is to create a “big tent” committee that will work toward particular unified goals.
Development of Abbot Court could be one of them.
Council Chair Brad Benson, who is a liaison to the Downtown Committee, said he was impressed with the ideas presented by Arnett.
“It gets people thinking creatively and provides a baseline for the biggest thinking we can have in our community. It's definitely going to create some movement at Abbot Court, at the least, to fix up the parking lot,” Benson said. “It's nice to have a blueprint, even if only conceptual, to help us move in the right direction.”

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