Upper Square in perspective

Upper Square makes for some delightful shopping. The horse trough in the median is a nod to the past.

 

Central Avenue, while walking from the river toward Upper Square.

 

A glimpse at Fourth Street, one-block long, illustrates the challenge in creating an inviting neighborhood. At the moment, there’s nothing to entice passers-by to turn down the street. The old county courthouse is vacant, and former storefronts are used for storage. At best, it’s a shortcut to the parking lot at the Amtrak station.

 

In contrast, as Fifth Street demonstrates, side streets can add much to a downtown’s usefulness and appeal.

Yes, it’s small potatoes in the big scheme of things, but I’m still fascinated

One wing of the new Orpheum overlooks the library, city hall, and St. Thomas Episcopal on Locust Street.

I appreciate your patience as I examine the transformation taking place in my small city. I know this construction and planning would go unnoticed in big metropolises, although these moves could play pivotal roles in anchoring vital neighborhoods and their identities within them.

Actually, that was something I watched happen in Baltimore under Mayor William Donald Schaeffer in the early ’80s, and the results I saw were exciting, especially where I lived in Bolton Hill.

What’s really at stake is quality of life. Pleasing visual variety can be part of that, but healthy urban life and community are a mix of much more, and that’s what I see happening in Dover. The fact I don’t have to get in a car for many things is a delight, though I do drive more than I’d like, mostly for time factors.

In its smaller scale, Dover is a kind of laboratory, one enhanced by a savvy economic development director and city manager. What’s happening now – and about to happen on a site on the other side of the river – is the result of many touches earlier, including the construction of a central parking garage to eliminate some of the lots around downtown. As these seas of parked cars become actual walkways with stores  and services leading to more options, the retail center becomes ever more integrated into its surrounding residential neighborhoods.

Here’s how downtown looks coming up Locust Street from the south. The Greek Orthodox church is tucked in on the left. The new parking garage is straight ahead.
And you turn around and look up at this, the Captain Moses Paul House.

 

Lower Square as the center of town

The old Masonic temple, new Orpheum, and old Strafford County Bank dominate Lower Square, where northbound traffic is peeled off to circle up around the old mills before rejoining Central Avenue. The photo was taken in front of the former newspaper plant, now named Foster Place, and the children’s museum.

It’s been like a downtown waiting to happen, if only the right neighbors moved in.

And now, actually, they are, thanks to the new Orpheum project and what’s happening at the old newspaper plant now dubbed Foster Place.

Historically, some dramatic fires shaped the street, too, removing an imposing city hall that included the largest auditorium in the state (“opera house,” as it was known) and a Baptist church. Mills across the street were also razed over time, making the entire scene airier.

It’s not as alone as it looks here. There’s a former firehouse now serving as a fine restaurant and a parking garage behind it. The new Orpheum diagonally across the street adds some vertical unity along Washington Street.

 

Along with the Cocheco Millworks, this has been the center of town.

 

Like the restaurant renovations I had considered in fiction

A pocket courtyard and stairwell tower now face Central Avenue in what had been unused space where an addition joined the original building. The windows, caps, and doorways are new.

I’ve been watching the renovation of the former newspaper plant downtown with special interest. Remember, I am a retired journalist.

To begin with, the existing edifice was highly problematic, beginning with the question of what to do with the former industrial pressroom and moving on to the way the structure had been expanded wily-nily over the decades. Apart from its first (modest) construction, the evolving building was never exactly what you’d call planned. Not with a long view.

Apartments, many of them overlooking riverfront Henry Law Park, are rising atop what had been the newspaper’s press.
As it was before.

Owned by one family for generations, the daily Foster’s Daily Democrat was headquartered on a prominent corner of Lower Square. In fact, the publisher and his family even lived in quarters in the flat-iron style building where traffic now curves from Central Avenue onto Washington Street and then Main as it winds around the historic mills and river.

The longest side of the plant, though, stands along Henry Law Avenue but has never interacted with it. Nope, it was just a concrete block wall with a few slits. Or fortress, meaning until recently, the street was largely a traffic siphon. But that’s changed now that the children’s museum on the other side draws thousands of families and school groups each year, as do free concerts in the small park. People actually stop and pay to park their vehicles along the street, and not because they have jobs nearby.

Facing the park.

Again, with the city planner’s goal of making downtown both pedestrian- and family-friendly, the interface has been changing.

At last, a developer has realized that to make the old newspaper office viable to new tenants, big changes were needed. And finally, that’s happening. Naturally, it’s a multi-use approach.

This is what’s emerging. The intention, I’d say, is to make the unified structure look like smaller, traditional side-by-side buildings. I do like the recessed balconies overlooking the park and its state-of-the-art destination playground.

 

And, at the far end, this, emphasizing the views.

 

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s family members also realize they need to upgrade their restaurant, and that leads to an ambitious project to repurpose the building next door. It’s not that unlike what’s happening on Henry Law Avenue as the blank concrete block wall is opened to pedestrian traffic.

What do you think?

 

Filling in a modest skyline

What would otherwise be the rear, on the south, instead projects its own grandeur as it fronts on the lawns of the community center and public library. The blank brick wall on the right is the side of the old Masonic temple. 

Fitting the new Orpheum into an essentially triangular site made for an interesting design challenge. Fitting into an existing downtown look and scale of size was another. And optimizing return on investment and budget was a third.

The footprint led to an interesting solution as well as an emerging new skyline.

The developer’s results look like two parallel buildings when seen from the west, as well as a long backdrop for the existing downtown when seen from the east.

And this is before the landscaping kicks in.

From the front, facing north, varied textures suggest narrower side-by-side buildings rather than a single monolith. I find it rather busy, but maybe that was the intention.

 

From the bank drive-thru, two new buildings seem to be rising. The existing city hall sits to the right, and then the new district courthouse. 

 

Another look from the bank drive-thru.

 

Sitting back a block from Central Avenue, the new Orpheum adds depth to an urban view.

Let’s not get nostalgic

The quirky arch inspired the name of the new project as well as a design element retained in the new, larger structure.

I’ve been posting images and commentary on the big changes taking place in my small city’s downtown. The biggest project is the new Orpheum, replacing a storefront block and taking its name from a tiny movie house that once occupied one corner.

This is what occupied most of the site.
And this.

From the post office parking lot

A post office is a major traffic draw to a downtown, and Dover is lucky the operation hasn’t been moved out to a suburban site. Here’s a sense of how it fits in.

The front entrance with a view of the neighboring hardware store and new Orpheum. This gives a sense of the scale of our redefined city core.

The new police station sits across Chestnut Street. A new parking garage rises behind it. Public housing with restaurants and offices stands to the left, along the river, and a bus stop has protective covering.

 

Adding to a center of gravity downtown

The new Orpheum as seen through a pocket parking lot on Central Avenue. It was mostly more parking, of a private sort, and a warehouse.

Although Dover is a third larger than Portsmouth only 12 miles downstream, its downtown has never had the same heft. Rather than clustering around the harbor like Portsmouth, Dover’s has fronted a spine along Central Avenue, with Washington Street as the only major crossing – one that until recently ended abruptly at the loop in the river.

Now that’s changing, a result of the scale of the new Orpheum complex a block to the west.

While the new multi-use building can look overpowering, it’s actually tucked in very nicely with the existing surroundings. It complements the height of the former Masonic hall to the east, rather than rising above it, and touches on a hardware store, the post office, a bank, district court, former high school now turned into a community center, public library, and city hall – mostly in what had been a parking lot, which did nothing to hold the elements together, at least for regular people on foot.

I’m not enthralled with its façade, but I’ll acknowledge the desire to fit in, something I saw impressively in Baltimore’s modest row house neighborhoods. What I do admire is the way this promises to function in a vibrant community.

For one thing, it tries to look like several buildings rather than one, to avoid an overpowering monotony. For me, the result looks somewhat hectic, but we’ll see how it actually plays out.

The arch window, by the way, pays homage to the appearance of the old Orpheum movie house that sat on one corner.

The corner of Washington and Locust streets, facing the old Masonic temple.

 

As seen from the back of the post office and Citizens Bank.