After the recent approval of the 173 Market St. ‘development’ , and the Ceres St. ‘bump out’ , (despite an articulate and heartfelt defense of our waterfront and its value to the future), I have hit upon the only ‘hopeful’ point of view I can think of.
Of course, it was penned by a poet – a New Hampshire poet at that!
“An intelligent person fights for lost causes, realizing that others are merely effects”
e e cummings
…still, breathtakingly shocking to see what we have allowed in our once beautiful town- may our children & grandchildren value the legacy our ancestors have left to us better than we have…perhaps they will be able to reverse the most egregious choices if jewels we have left aren’t torn down by then.
….development is one thing – this is clearly a lack of vision, a lack of values and a lack of caring…
I see that the Hotels have been in the news lately. They ask us to change our building rules & ignore or regulations! !
As a fellow Portsmouth resident, one of the issues I have with these BIG money hotels is their lack of support for our town. You never see the Hilton, Marriott or Hampton Inn donating to the local schools, Prescott Park Arts Festival, Strawberry Banks. However, local ma & pa’s donate constantly. I would be interested in someone doing an article revealing WHAT businesses are actually supporting our town
Community Not Polarization – How to make Harborcorp a ‘Real Place‘
Community is an elusive force that can be fostered or undermined. Community holds diversity and debate, and helps catalyze good ideas because people listen to and learn from one another. As we see in the political arena, lobbyists are very good at polarizing debate to serve their own agendas, causing bi-partisan gridlock, and hampering the evolution of sensible policy. Polarization is the very opposite of community.
To the extent that the debate over the Harborcorp Project has been characterized as polarized – as those who are for or against it – community has been undermined. And the danger of this is that good solutions can then go ignored. The Portsmouth residents who have come to City Hall over the past year or written letters to the City Council, City Manager and land use boards to debate the Harborcorp development plans, have put forward proposals to moderate the building. Not to stop it.
Community is the embodiment of meaningful relationship. This is describing something deep. But one of the implications, when considering largescale developments, is that a bricks and mortar, or steel girder and concrete structure, is more than just a building. It is – or will be – an expression of certain values and qualities. And when it is a public building, particularly when it is in or closeby a small town’s center, it must embody the values and qualities that enhance community. Otherwise, it will undermine them.
Proportion and perspective, for instance, are qualities that require the meaningful relationship between parts. They are qualities needed to make designs aesthetic, which means they give us a sense of relatedness to them. We respond visually to the proportions of the golden mean because the same proportions govern the growth patterns of nature, including the design of our bodies. The proportion of our forearm to our upper arm, the spacing of our facial features are expressions of the Phi ratio. This is why most of us prefer to walk through woodland or down the nave of a great cathedral than across parking lots and strip malls. In this sense the phrase ‘human scale’ in Portsmouth’s Master Plan means buildings that embody the qualities of meaningful relatedness. Of community.
Basically myself and others have asked, not only in presentations before and letters to the City but also in meetings with Chris Thompson, Harborcorp’s co-investor and public face, and members of his team: why not break the building up? Why not vary the height?
Why did we make these suggestions? Because the current plan for
Harborcorp comprises one solid block: 650 feet at the back, 780 feet at the front, extending the full lengths of both Deer and Russell Streets. The entire structure is an unbroken average height of 60 feet. At the back, the building would tower more like 75 feet over the flat of Maplewood Avenue, because the land slopes up and the building
is raised four to five feet above the railway tracks.
What are the objections to this mass? Let’s get back to community and the meaningful relationship between parts. Does the mass of this building have a meaningful relationship to the rest of the town? The building is 50 % larger than Portwalk III. It is larger than any other building in the center part of town. New York’s UN building is very large and tall. But then, it’s set against skyscrapers and dedicated to uniting the nations of the world! Therefore its size is in keeping with both its context and its purpose. Harborcorp will be dedicated to conferences, tourism and grocery shopping. So its size as the largest building ever proposed for Portsmouth is out of proportion to its civic meaning and its context.
If one walks 650 feet (the same length as Harborcorp’s back) along Congress Street from Popovers to Radici, one passes 11 separate buildings, 21 stores and crosses two streets and two alleyways. Harborcorp is one whole block, with no thoroughfares, (except a tunnel that leads to the service road at the back). It creates no pedestrian access potential over the railway from Vaughan Street into the downtown. Therefore, its design is not related to the nature of the downtown, nor connected to the North End. From behind, it will block any remaining view of North Church’s spire, the center of the town, walling off the North End businesses and neighborhoods from downtown.
The main elements of Harborcorp comprise a luxury hotel, 23 luxury condos; conference center with a maximum capacity of 1200 people; 40,000 square foot Whole Foods Market and cafe; and 523 car parking spaces (these are mostly accounted for, and will not be enough to accommodate most conferences). All housed in one structure, disguised by differing facade treatments to look like eight different buildings.
Good architecture means design and purpose – form and content – are integrated. The building is what it is. It is not pretending to be something else. The appearance of the Harborcorp building, and its function, are not integrated. It is an amorphous behemoth with fancy camouflage. Facade treatments are essentially decorative. They are not the same as the meaningful relationship between parts.
Chris Thompson is not, apparently, short on vision. In a Portland, Maine development, he’s including a circus school and open air performance space. In a recent ‘Mainebiz’ article he says: “There’s no fooling people. Either it feels like a real place, or it doesn’t… It’s about creating those spaces we’ve all experienced where you imagine chapters in your life beginning …” I agree!
We love Portsmouth because it is a ‘real place’; and because its architecture, alleyways and vistas open imaginative doorways. We cannot afford to lose that. So how about making Harborcorp a ‘real place’?! Forge the elements into three real buildings. Breaking it up can increase variability in height – more pleasing to the eye; and create pedestrian access from Vaughan, specified by the Master Plan. This would be a development that could cover itself in glass and declare itself to the reflections of the life around it!
The Real Grassroots
When Chris Thompson, the public face of Harborcorp, the huge conference center/hotel/ condominium/Whole Foods Market development proposed for the Sheraton parking lot, presents his plans before City Hall, he brings with him a team of highly paid lawyers, architects and consultants.
By contrast, the folks serving on the City Council and land use boards are volunteers, giving their time and energy to the City for free. Similarly, the residents who come to advocate for what’s best for them and the City, are also on their own time, unpaid. Both the city boards and the residents face Harborcorp’s professionals, paid by the hour at meetings that can go from 6.30 PM to past midnight.
The Harborcorp complex, probably costing a hundred million dollars or more, is the largest project ever proposed for the City of Portsmouth. The ultimate power to green light such a development has been given over to the Historic District Commission, an unpaid group consisting predominantly of architects and builders used to debating the merits of doorways, cupolas, window frames, etc on historic buildings. This is a big stretch for them, and they are way out of their depth.
One of the members of HarborCorp’s team is Paul Young, resident of Exeter, and President of Novus Public Affairs, a PR and lobbying company. Paul Young proudly states on his website, his go-to TV news source is Fox News. Novus has been hired by Chris Thompson because of their track record. Novus’ website brags about the tactics used to help another large developer push through the Lowe’s/Target shopping center in Greenland in 2007. Here are direct quotes from their website:
“Massachusetts-based Packard Development was facing local opposition to their proposed development of a shopping center in Greenland, New Hampshire…. Novus professionals were tasked with turning the tide of publicity surrounding the project to ensure that development was able to proceed smoothly…. Novus experts developed a strategic plan to isolate the opposition as an unreasonable minority… With the help of key advocates on the Greenland Planning Board and in the NH State Legislature recruited by Novus, the Rockingham County Superior Court ruled in favor of Packard in 2007.” So Greenland got its strip mall whether it wanted it or not.
Novus’ services also include “crafting grassroots programs” for their clients. Wikipedia calls this practice ‘Astroturfing‘ after the plastic grass used on sports fields. I sincerely hope our City leaders and others will see through any attempts to marginalize residents like me by saying we’re against all development, which is not true. We want to see appropriate thoughtful development. The HarborCorp plan is too big. It should be broken up into two or three separate buildings with pedestrian access through them, the roof height should be varied and the parking and traffic problems revisited.
This is the substance of the appeal by almost 160 residents. We want to revisit HarborCorp’s application. Not to stop it, but to moderate it. Jerry Zelin and Duncan MacCallum are heading this motion not for fat fees they won’t earn – they are doing it for free – because, like me, they are residents who care deeply about the long-term vision for this City and are prepared to make their voices heard as part of a real grassroots community movement. Our City’s boards should listen to what we the taxpayers are saying not join the Paul Young song sheet and try to dismiss us as nay sayers.
Sincerely Jonathan Guilbert
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