Community life at the heart of new Granite State town center projects
Milford resident Jason Guelfi walks his four boxers through the Oval, the center of Milford's thriving downtown district.
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Throughout the state, communities, including Bedford and now Windham, are working on village center and town common projects. Some towns are vying to create centers and others are trying to revitalize what they already have.
Milford recognized the value of town centers long before planners and development professionals started touting vibrant and sustainable villages.
It's perhaps no surprise that Milford resident Charles Worcester decided to call his business Hometown Insurance. Worcester, originally from Hollis, married a Milford girl and they settled down in her hometown to raise a family about 40 years ago. Since then, Worcester has been committed to his adopted hometown. He heads up the Milford Heritage Commission and has been involved in community projects, including a campaign to revitalize the town center.
Downtown Milford is wrapped around the oval, a traditional New England town green with footpaths, flowers, benches and an old-fashioned gazebo-style bandstand. More of a triangle than an oval, it is surrounded by shops and restaurants and anchored by a historic town hall.
Worcester is a member of the Milford Improvement Team, which organizes concerts and festivals on the oval. The events bring the community together, and also draw visitors from surrounding towns, which, in turn, generate a positive business atmosphere, he said.
“We see the value of downtowns and how the town center enhances our community,” said Worcester. “From a quality-of-life standpoint, it's immeasurable.”
A recent study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute examined the effect of hometown identity on young people in Coos County. The study concluded that teens who have a positive sense of their hometown tend to have a higher sense of self-esteem and a better shot at success in school and careers.
Some of the interest in town commons is tied to the principles of smart growth and sustainable development. Communities are eyeing high-density housing and central business districts as part of the solution to the sprawling development that's gobbling large tracts of land, water and other resources.
Town centers and commons offer more than a convenient space to hold a craft fair or summertime concert. They provide a shared sense of identity among residents of a community, a common ground or starting point to solve problems or set goals.
“Plans vary from town to town, but you really feel the strength of your community when you establish a town center,” said Worcester. “And those towns that don't have them seem to want to create them.
Among the communities looking at village center plans, Windham may face some of the steepest challenges.
The town initially looked at incorporating its cluster of historic town buildings at the top of Church Street, just off Route 111, into a village district that merged with the existing stores that stretch along the busy roadway. The original idea involved building a Route 111 bypass to the south and using the old road as the main street of a walkable village with a mix of residential, commercial, historical and public spaces.
“It was a great idea, but it didn't take into account realities like cost and wetlands,” said Windham Community Development Director Laura Scott, who added the bypass is no longer considered an option. Instead, Windham now hopes to develop its village district north of the town's historic center. But all of that land is privately owned, and the project hinges on the owners throwing their support and acreage behind the plan.
The recently formed Village District Subcommittee, which includes some of those property owners, has been looking at revising zoning ordinances to encourage private development of the project.
“We are leaving it up to the citizens to decide how to take the vision and turn it into a reality,” said Scott.
Committee members are getting help from planning board members Kristi St. Laurent and Sy Wrenn, and from Rockingham Planning Commission Senior Planner Glen Greenwood. Still, it's slow going.
Although a village center with shops, open spaces, playgrounds and walkways may be a huge asset, those uses might not offer the best return for landowners.
So the committee agreed to recommend scrapping zoning restrictions on retail stores larger than 10,000 square feet and on restaurants that serve take-out food. And while the Village Center District may initially have been conceived as a place for Windham residents, committee members agreed the project's best shot at success is as a regional destination.
Greenwood said there have been new issues and questions at every juncture, but ultimately a village center is an important element for the town.
“Windham really developed as a suburban community to Boston,” he said. “There was a boom in growth in 1975 and continued residential development since then.”
According to Greenwood, a town center would support and help unify Windham's streets and neighborhoods.
“A town center plays a big role in town identity,” he said. “It allows folks to centralize their experiences in the town beyond their homes.”
A lot of town center plans emphasize the need for a large open space where people can gather to celebrate, commemorate, protest or anything else they choose to do as a community.
Windham's Village Center District is being planned as a commercial zone, and doesn't include a town common or green.
“We have a little green in the historic center,” said Scott. “And we have Griffin Park; that's really our town green for multi-uses and community events.”
The Bedford Village Common is exclusively about community green space. The 9.4-acre public park on the edge of the historic center has been in the works for years, and it may officially open sometime at the end of this year.
“What I love is that it's a gathering place for everybody in the community,” said Beverly Thomas, who heads up the committee overseeing the project. “This is a place for everybody, whether you are a 1-year-old or a 99-year-old. It's the whole gamut. There's no other place in town like that. It's a common space where everyone can gather.”
The town set aside the land for the project years ago, and even picked up the $95,000 tab for engineering and design services, a fence, sign and some land clearing.
But in the wake of the 2008 economic landslide, some members of the Bedford Town Council began calling the common a “want” rather than a “need.” And the project has taken some heat for adding an ice skating pond and a warming hut, things Thomas has said residents have specifically requested.
Still, support for the project among both businesses and residents has been deep enough that the committee has been able to get the work done with recreational impact fees on new development, in-kind donations and money collected through different fund-raising programs.
“When the bandstand went up a lot of people got behind the project,” said Deb Sklar, a member of the Village Common Committee. “Bedford has never had a defined central gathering spot, and now it does.”
Thomas has generated broad support for the common by including as many different people and groups in the project as possible. Eagle Scout Liam Oulette built a pair of hexagonal picnic tables for the park. Richard Poisson is working to create a veterans memorial for the common. The Bedford Garden Club is planting flowers and shrubs, birdwatchers will have birdhouses to keep an eye on and Thomas said she's hoping the library will use the common for reading programs.
“Watching all these townspeople come together to create a park that will last forever has really been beautiful,” said Sklar.
And while Windham and Bedford are involved in two very different types of projects, they both generate a similar a sense of community control and accomplishment.
“A village center project affects the way we see government,” said Scott. “We look at a place in the community and we think, 'We're the ones who run the village center.'”
Some communities have an easier time with town center projects and districts because of the way they have evolved over time.
Merrimack has a beautiful set of town buildings, parks and resources. But according to Peter Flood, who heads up the Town Center and Trail Committee, Merrimack was historically more a string of villages rather than one cohesive community.
“We don't have a traditional town center and we have been looking at ways to connect all these small, dense, walkable areas,” said Flood.
Flood and other residents have created a trail and sidewalk master plan than forges some of those connections. Sidewalks and trails lead through different parts of town and allow people to walk to Watson Park, a riverfront destination that Merrimack considers its town green.
Pelham's town center has a wealth of historic buildings that most people probably don't notice as they race through on their way to work in the morning, or back home in the evening.
Drivers move so fast through Pelham they have bumped up traffic accident statistics enough to trigger a state Dept. of Transportation road improvement project that involves building two roundabouts in the center, with one right next to Pelham's small town common.
“It's going to be great,” said Pelham Selectman Hal Lynde. “It will ease the flow of traffic and it's a lot better than stopping at a traffic light.”
And Pelham's road work is coinciding with another major town center project. The fire department is moving out of the building across the street from the town common into a new station on the nearby town green. And as soon as they go, the town plans to raze the old firehouse.
“The common will have more green space, and it will open up the view,” said Lynde. “People will be so proud of the center when it's done.”
In other communities, town centers are more about preservation than development.
Charles Denton stopped at Amherst Common on Sunday afternoon to let his three border collies get some exercise.
Denton grew up in Amherst and went to school in a building just off the common, which is the heart of the town's historic village district. He remembers having recess on the green and jumping in big piles of leaves that town workers raked up and left for the kids to enjoy.
Denton said holidays were marked with public celebrations on the common.
“There were May Day celebrations and maypoles, parades ... all that stuff took place here,” he said.
And on ordinary weekdays, a post office, located just off the common, brought a steady stream of people to the center for the mail and company.
But Denton said there was also a premium to living in the village. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Amherst had courthouses, businesses and even a late 19th-century grand hotel.
But for the first half of the 20th century, the town was quiet.
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