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Parking, money hamper dreams of a better Arms Park

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 11. 2016 8:48PM
People walk along the Merrimack River at Arms Park during lunchtime on Friday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - Additional green space. A modern, functional boat launch. A focal point for expanded development of the city's riverfront.

When Manchester Connects held a community meeting last month seeking input from people on their vision for the city's Millyard, a common theme emerged in many of the responses - improve Arms Park.

"Because of its size and central location in the Millyard, Arms Park is an incredibly valuable asset to the future growth and prosperity of downtown," said Mike Skelton, President and CEO of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. "The park has the potential to play a critical role in addressing our future parking needs in the Millyard as well as serve as a gathering place for community events as a riverfront park. There is renewed interest and energy to more fully harness the potential of the riverfront as part of the Manchester Connects initiative and Arms Park is a critical piece to the puzzle."

Manchester resident and downtown business owner Lisa Maria-Booth would like to see green areas added to the site.

"Turn Arms Park into a real park, someplace people want to go," said Maria-Booth.

The park opened in the 1980s and is showing wear - weeds sprout out of the brick walkway, rust spots mark handrails and tags of graffiti mar the boat launch walls.

City officials say they agree with the calls to improve the park - just not likely any time soon, due to financial constraints, and not at the expense of Millyard parking.

"We would need a couple of significant garages built in the area, that accommodate 1,000 spaces or so, to offset the parking if any green space was added," said Pat Long, Ward 3 alderman and chairman of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. "Money is always an issue, but if there are grants available, I would like to see it used to its potential. It could be a real focal point of the city's riverfront."

Arms Park and the parking area adjacent to it were once the site of the Amoskeag's Mill No. 9, where an outbreak of anthrax occurred in 1957. At the time, anthrax was considered an occupational hazard in textile factories, where workers could contract the disease from handling wool or goat hair. In 1957, nine Arms workers were infected, and four of them died.

The mill was closed in 1968, decontaminated, and torn down. During the 1980s a combination of public and private investments resulted in several improvements to the Millyard area, including the designation of a roughly one mile area of land as Arms Park. Today the park is used as recreational area, and is a popular staging ground for public events and festivals. The site was home to an annual series of rock concerts in the 1980s, drawing thousands of people. When Hall and Oates played the site in 1986, attendance hit 19,000.

Sara Beaudry, executive director of Intown Manchester, remembers the concerts well from her days working in local radio. She thinks Arms Park presents an exciting opportunity for the city.

"I think it could be incredible," said Beaudry. "You look at what some of the cities have done in terms of their waterways, and you think about what we could do here. I think it is so underdeveloped, but you can't lose the parking."

John Clayton, executive director of the Manchester Historic Association, said his group and the Millyard Museum sees the park as a springboard for all the city's riverfront activities.

"A fuller vision for Arms Park as an anchor in the Millyard would also give us the opportunity to expand and extend the Riverwalk further south and north," Clayton said. "When we reach the pinch-point where the Waumbec Mill becomes flush with the Merrimack River's containment wall, why not extend out over the river with a cantilevered walkway that could run all the way to Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, to the Hands Across the Merrimack Bridge and to the Queen City Bridge and beyond? Using that same process, we could also extend the Riverwalk further north, so visitors can see the islands in the river and the Amoskeag Dam up by the Eversource headquarters, where the Amoskeag Falls once served as the crucible for Manchester's very existence."

David Preece, executive director and CEO of the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission, said the Manchester Connects initiative considers the Merrimack River a vital part of its vision for the Queen City.

"The Merrimack River is a great natural resource running through the heart of the city of Manchester, and it has not nearly reached its potential," said Preece. "Making the river accessible to the people of Manchester is another major goal of the planning initiative. Arms Park is an example of how this can be done. Completing the development of a RiverWalk as a destination will not only bring economic development and lifestyle enhancements to the city, it will also serve as a connector for biking/hiking trails that have been developed to our north, south, east, and west."

Skelton feels improvements to Arms Park could kickstart other efforts across the Millyard.

"It's central location combined with a large amount of surface area makes it an ideal site for new parking infrastructure that would support the continued growth of businesses in the Millyard," said Skelton. "Investing in new parking infrastructure in Arms Park would also present an ideal opportunity to upgrade and expand the park itself and add more green space and an enhanced riverfront area that could support community events and increased use of the Riverwalk. Interesting ideas like re-establishing a kayaking course on this section of the river, installing public art displays, and a new pedestrian bridge connecting the east and west sides of the river all warrant consideration when re-imagining this space."

Those wishing to join the conversation on the future of Arms Park and the city's Millyard are invited to attend a discussion today at 2 p.m. at the Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash Street in Manchester. The discussion coincides with the Urban Landscapes: Manchester and the Modern American City exhibition, on view until August 29.

Susan Silberberg, founder of CivicMoxie, will share the community vision for Manchester's Millyard, RiverWalk and downtown areas. CivicMoxie is currently consulting on the Manchester Connects project. The discussion is free with museum admission.

"I think we're on the cusp of something exciting, and after spending nearly 200 years keeping the areas separated, Arms Park can be a vital link in the effort to connect the Merrimack and the Millyard with downtown Manchester," said Clayton.

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