Mark Hayward's City Matters: Businesses miffed about street closures
One of the remarkable things about Manchester is the grid.
At least in the core areas of the city, nearly all streets line up with enough perpendicular precision to draw a smile of admiration to the lips of draftsmen, surveyors and high school geometry teachers.
With a grid, a driver instinctively knows the direction he is traveling in.
If you miss a turn, just drive one block farther, take a right and back track.
And in a state grounded on principles of individuality and independence, the grid provides a subtle counterbalance of uniformity, at least from the perspective of blacktop.
All you have to do is go to Boston — or Bedford for that matter — to see what happens when streets are built for short cuts or convenience's sake, without a grand overall design. So if something threatens the grid, Manchester people have every right to be annoyed.
Phil LeBlanc is annoyed. The owner of LeBlanc's Hardware, LeBlanc saw the street his business is on — the exquisitely named Hayward Street — blocked by gates and Jersey barriers this past winter. And last month, after his alderman tried to get the barriers removed and the street opened for at least part of the day, gates, signs and sawhorses went up closing a portion of the adjoining Lincoln Street.
"It's just so frustrating. The excuses are so lame," said LeBlanc, who has collected 500 signatures to a petition protesting the barriers.
Officially, block-long portions of the two streets are termed discontinued. But you could call them extinct, erased from the grid as part of the new city complex that opened earlier this year. The $43 million complex is a new home for the Police, Highway, Water Works and Fleet Management departments.
The vast space — more than two city blocks — is designed for workers, vehicles and heavy equipment to move about freely.
"This was designed as a single site, not three pieces of property with public roads intersecting them," said Kevin Sheppard, the director of Public Works. "It assists our work flow, the safety of our employees as well as the safety of the public."
Work flow has trumped traffic flow.
LeBlanc said he hears complaints from his customers every day, and it's aggravating that he can't do anything about it.
Jay Girard, owner of Lafayette Press, another Hayward Street business, doesn't like it either.
"It's bad for the neighborhood, bad for retail businesses," he said.
Hayward Street is blocked just outside his front door, but he said it doesn't harm his business because it doesn't rely on customers who come in off the street.
But he said there are restaurants, a credit union, LeBlanc's and auto repair shops that rely on Hayward Street traffic for business.
Another retailer said the closed streets force his customers to travel several blocks out of their way to reach his business, but he didn't want his name used. "The last thing I need is a city inspector showing up," he said.
City officials said they followed the process correctly a couple of years ago when they properly discontinued the portions of Hayward and Lincoln streets that run through the city yard.
Lawyers (the people politicians call in when they want to get out of a jam) have warned against taking down the barriers and opening the city property to through traffic. That would not make the street a street in the legal sense, meaning the city could be sued for accidents or injuries on the faux street.
"I don't think I could support city streets going through the new complex," Mayor Ted Gatsas said. "The liability is huge."
He said there are alternative routes to LeBlanc's Hardware. Most people can drive up Valley Street, take a right on Wilson Street and easily reach the hardware store, he said.
But to Girard, Hayward Street was always a short cut for locals to avoid the traffic and stop lights on Valley Street. Valley will now become more crowded, he warned.
LeBlanc bristles at the suggestion by Gatsas and others that the street closings were done properly and everybody had an opportunity for input. The closings were one detail of the overall $43 million project, and no one read the fine print, he said.
"All of it was done in one big ball of wax," he said. "No one knew what they were voting for."
He said Gatsas, who had the complex built, is the one who really wants to keep the streets closed, and no one will stand up to him. "The department heads, they're like bobble-head dolls. They want to keep their jobs," LeBlanc said.
His hopes rest with veteran Alderman Bill Shea. Last month, Shea fought a losing battle to open Hayward Street from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., when little work is going on inside the city yard.
He lost on a close vote of aldermen, after city officials presented a letter from a lawyer warning against the move.
Shea took it personally. Unwritten protocol is for aldermen to support a fellow alderman when it comes to neighborhood issues such as zoning and stop signs.
"It's a nice slap in the face to the people," an aggravated Shea said after the vote. "I'll be back again, don't worry about it."
Don't be so sure. Shea wouldn't return my repeated phone calls; LeBlanc said Shea wants the closed portions of the streets to be declared streets again, a process that involves hearings, a petition, and review by state officials.
However, Shea lost one vote on the issue already, and it's tough for even an alderman to get something through City Hall if those bobble-head dolls don't want it.
Just ask Tom Deblois, a former state senator who owns the office building on Rogers Street. The property lost a driveway, thanks to the new complex.
"People don't seem to be crying about it, they're just inconvenienced," he said. "If the city really has a good reason to keep it closed, you have to live with it."
Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on UnionLeader.com. He is not related to Hayward Street, but he gets a kick whenever he drives down it.