With riverviews blocked by luxury condos disappearing from public sight, a participant in this week’s North End Form-Based Zoning session suggested that the city buy a former dry cleaning place on the North Millpond and turn it into a public park. Others want a public parkway along the whole millpond waterfront, public parks sprinkled across the North End and a pedestrian/bicycle track along the Vaughan corridor, through HarborCorp and above the railroad tracks all the way to the North Mill Pond.
One goal of buying the former Cindy Ann Cleaner’s: to preserve some of the last open water views of the North Millpond for the public’s benefit before it’s too late. Whether the city will have the foresight to do that before someone snaps it up remains to be seen.
The suggestion that the city buy, preserve and/or devote waterfront land for public benefit comes as a huge condo project rises at the end of State Street at the base of Memorial Bridge. In what some residents consider a failure of vision, political courage and foresight on the city’s part, that project is expected to block off much of the river view from State Street, some North Church steeple views from the river, and partly wall off one end of Prescott Park when many feel the city should have bought the property long ago and annexed it to Prescott Park for the public good.
Although a local developer lavished praise on the city administration this week, one participant at the FBZ charrette privately expressed regret that the city did not raise the money to buy the former Pier II restaurant site long ago for public use instead of letting it go to a few hulking luxury condos at a gateway to the city from Maine.
Asked what happened to the “riverwalk” project for a public walkway along the Piscataqua from Harbour Place to Ceres Street, Portsmouth City Manager John Bohenko Tuesday explained that the project failed amid concerns about private property-ownership and eminent domain. Although Bohenko insisted that folks can still enjoy public river views from behind the tugboats to a restaurant balcony overlooking a bit of the river, this blogger found it a cramped, unwelcoming space where would-be river viewers were made to feel guilty for not reserving a table to eat an expensive meal.
“There’s no sign on Bow Street that I’m aware of that points to a public viewing area,” objected one of the disappointed would-be river viewers. “Who knows about it? And then they ask you if you want to pay for a meal!”
This week’s North End “visioning” session comes amid heavy development pressures and concerns about an onslaught of huge, boxy buildings in the North End. Under the accelerated approval process now fast-tracked via design review/vesting and simultaneous land use board-approvals, some worried aloud that the area could wind up looking like the kind of strip mall usually banished from city centers or a grim slice of Atlantic City. Among the challenges for the FBZ team: how to craft a formula that pleases developers and their minions and plain old residents alike. Ideally, the winning formula should not aggravate parking, traffic, and water and sewer problems, but would encourage welcoming public spaces and streetscapes without walling off neighborhoods and water views. The magic formula would provide housing for workers and artists, writers and musicians, bridge the gulf between tall and small, avoid “fake historic” while respecting the North End’s history, add quality structures that “celebrate” our culture instead of anonymous-looking Anywhere, USA-type buildings, leave some natural-looking areas with real trees big enough not to be propped up, and, as one participant put it, create a place where humans can feel human.
One resident suggests taking a hint from visionary past civic leaders who pushed to create urban parks like Haven Park, Leary Field, and the former Alumni Field, now mostly lost to an “oversized” middle school and a new Connie Bean Center “unfortunately” relocated to a flood plain as sea level rises. Just as the federal government in effect seized the North End from the residents of a working class Portsmouth neighborhood for “urban renewal,” the feds also took 2,600 acres from Portsmouth and Newington farmers to create Pease Air Force Base in the 1950’s. In 1988, former Portsmouth Mayor and then Democratic State Senator Eileen Foley got a law passed through the legislature and agreed-to by the Republican Governor that if Pease ever closed, the land would revert back to Portsmouth and Newington. “That was tremendous foresight,” marvels one source at the bipartisan effort. Although the state changed course, killed the law and refused to give the land back to the locals when Pease closed, the two communities hired a top-flight lobbyist, an economist and the best Chicago lawyers and won a bitter, expensive, and hard-fought battle to get tax revenue from Pease. The city got its investment back from hiring all those lawyers and experts many times over, plus tens of millions in tax revenues a year, according to a knowledgeable source. Further, the Newington families that lost their land backed the creation of New Hampshire’s first National Wildlife Refuge on 1,100 waterfront acres– and real estate speculators did not get to profit from their loss.
“Let us take a lesson from our community’s history, and not permit that to happen again,” urged one advocate for green space and public water views.
“The city has a legal right to determine its own future and what it looks like,” added another.
TONIGHT’S HDC AGENDA CONFUSING The HDC holds a work session on changes to 10 State Street at 7:30 pm tonight. But HDC agendas have become increasingly confusing and what the changes are is anyone’s guess.
Here is what the agenda says about what will come up:
DUE TO THE LENGTH OF THE AGENDA, Public Hearings (Old Business) A through D and Public Hearings (Regular agenda items) #1 through #3 and Work Sessions A through C will be heard on Wednesday, November 12, 2014 at 7:30 p.m. Work Sessions D through G will be heard on Wednesday, November 19, 2014 at 7:00 p.m
As for changes to 10 State Street, the HDC agenda only says the HDC will consider changes to windows and “MEP/FP design.” Asked exactly what the HDC will decide about 10 State Street, city Principal Planner Nick Cracknell, who staffs the HDC, said he believed it is changes to some windows and switching some granite lintels to precast concrete, but he said he’d have to check to make sure.
Look at the agenda and see if you can figure it out: http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/hdc/hdc111214ag.pdf
If you want the HDC agenda made less confusing and any staff memos to the HDC posted publicly on the city website, email the HDC ASAP via firstname.lastname@example.org