A generic side to Dover’s downtown transformation

As I’ve looked with delight at the renaissance of my small city’s downtown, one modeled in part on Jane Jacobs’ then revolutionary attack on urban renewal back in the ’50s, I am a bit bothered by how much of it is now based on a commercial cookie-cutter concept known as mid-rises – five-story stick-frame construction above a steel-frame pedestal that’s then given a brick or similar exterior facing.

It’s happening all over the country, actually, and not just in the heart of a city, either. Even here in Dover, we’re seeing something similar happening about a mile south of downtown as an over 50s-something neighborhood called Pointe Place with rents that astound me. Who can afford it? Some retirees, apparently. It’s a downtown within a doughnut, in effect. You can’t really walk there from anywhere else.

Of course, the Covid-19 pall casts a big shadow over these developments, but some observers say it might encourage more people to move from big cities to smaller communities like ours. We’ll have to be patient and see what actually unfolds.

As I’ve argued here in various forms, I’d rather have a real city center abutting organic neighborhoods, one with a funky fringe of mixed-use buildings, unlike apartment complexes surrounded by parking lots along the major highways or shopping strips.

What we definitely have here in Dover is the attraction of a river that rises and falls with the tide, as well as the historic mills once renowned for their calico and now serving as entrepreneurial incubators and housing.

Call it atmosphere and scale.

~*~

As Dover’s emerged as New Hampshire’s fastest growing city, the bulk of the new downtown residents are presumably singles and child-free couples, either young professionals or older folks who want the amenities of living close to restaurants, parks, and public events.

The retail and professional rentals are a larger concern, though, especially as many small merchants find themselves at a disadvantage against Amazon. Take the local hobby shop as an example. And that’s even before the bigger threat of coronavirus hit the entire economy.

Even so, these projects haven’t been on hold.

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The new Orpheum takes shape downtown, matching the height of the old Masonic building to its east and the old Strafford Bank across from that. The spire at top left is city hall, a block away from the back of the new building in what was previously a parking lot.
The Robbins Block storefronts are now gone and a five-story Orpheum is rising in their place. The hardware store, lower right, is still there. From the top left are the library, community center, and district court.

The old block may look charming in the photo, but the buildings were rundown and unwelcoming to pedestrians, as was the sprawling parking lot behind them. There was also a traffic bottleneck that’s being eliminated.

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