My small city is the seventh oldest settlement in the continental United States, not that there’s a lot left from its first century, when the place was largely on the sometimes troubled frontier of English dominion.
As a working-class mill town, it developed more modestly than more prosperous harbor towns like Portsmouth to the south or Portland to the northeast or Newburyport to the southwest.
Our downtown is catching up, though. A small but significant building boom is under way.
As I recently posted, the old ramshackle Robbins Block has been razed to make way for the new Orpheum apartments and shops, taking their name from the small movie theater that was once part of the site. One big plus is that a traffic bottleneck on Chestnut street will be eliminated by adding a new lane as part of the deal.
The idea of boosting the number of residents downtown was revolutionary back in the ’60s when Jane Jacobs took on the politics of urban renewal – or urban destruction, as it often became. But now mixed use districts are trendy, as the conversions in the Cocheco mill are demonstrating.
We did erect a parking garage a few years ago – not the most aesthetically harmonious structure but welcoming to shoppers and visitors and now residents, too. Plus, it’s a place for them to put their vehicles overnight during the seasonal ban on on-street parking to allow for snow removal.
Around the same time, lawyer Dave Bamford and his associates erected their six-story Riparia luxury apartments along the Cocheco River, replacing a parking lot. Its ground-floor retail space, however, is still looking for a suitable restaurant or other commercial tenant. At the moment, the site’s still around the corner from most of the flow of pedestrians.
In another deal, a city parking lot by the railroad tracks on Third Street is becoming more housing and commercial space.
Just to the north of the downtown, the former St. Charles Roman Catholic church, plagued with serious structural damage, has been razed and replaced with Bradley Commons and what’s touted as affordable housing, as has the Woodbury Mills behind it.
All of this means the downtown will have more population density, and that encourages pedestrian traffic, safety, and stores supporting residents. An existing family-owned supermarket and a hardware store, for instance, are bound to get a boost.
When I first came to town three decades ago, the mills were derelict. Many of the windows were covered in plywood. And then the visionary developer Joseph Sawtelle went to work, transforming them for a new generation of business and retail innovation. Since they sit at the heart of downtown, the new energy revitalized much more than the former calico factory.
I am curious, though, about the impact – if any – of the new Dover Pointe Place luxury apartments for 55-plus adults behind the Bill Dube Ford and Toyota dealership about a mile south of downtown. It includes several blocks of neo-downtown retailing – like a mall, a downtown without the town, except for the condos overhead and close-in. The tone is definitely upscale, unlike the incubator fringe of a typical downtown.
Will it be competition? Too far off the beaten path? Or add to the attraction of the city as a destination for shoppers and diners?
One thing for certain. These are signs of growth and optimism.
What’s going on in your community?