Revitalizing New England’s strip development

by Robin LeBlanc | Dec 08th, 2016 | Leave a comment



by guest Bill Flynn, Arnett Development Group (ADG) This first appeared in the December

New England consists mainly of a vast network of small rural towns connected by a web of two-lane state highways and back roads – a dispersed settlement pattern rooted deeply in an agricultural heritage. Historically, a town’s civic, cultural, and economic activities were concentrated in village centers, which in some cases, evolved into small downtown areas clustered around thriving factories and mills. It was a stable and for the most part, prosperous arrangement.

With the decline of New England’s textile industry along with rising energy and labor costs in the 1960s and 1970s, New England’s position as a major manufacturing and industrial center was undercut. By the end of the twentieth century, New England’s once bustling downtowns were deteriorating.

During the past few decades, we have made modest progress in stabilizing our failing downtowns, and now face a new challenge, the decline of the commercial strip, one of the culprits that helped contribute to the demise of downtowns, that is now itself threatened.  It is imperative that we look at restructuring the commercial strip in order to help stabilize and preserve the economic gains that have been made.

The Emergence of the Strip

While it can be argued that the emergence of strip development lead to the demise of downtowns, the root cause for the decline is a great deal more complicated. It takes a profound shift in social, cultural, and economic factors to change prevailing development patterns. This occurred following WWII, when the United States experienced a period of unprecedented prosperity. Programs like the federal home mortgage program and the development of the interstate highway system, helped stimulate a mass exodus from cities to surrounding suburbs. Congress also created massive subsidies for suburban commercial development by modifying the tax code, allowing owners to depreciate new commercial buildings in seven years, in place of the long-standing 40-year requirement. This coupled with cheap land prices stimulated a frenzy of development in suburbia. Towns quickly adopted zoning regulations, encouraging commercial development in a linear arrangement along major transportation corridors, thus giving rise to the “strip,” but ultimately harming downtowns.

Winds of Change 

Dominance of strip development began to erode in the late 1980s and 1990s with the development of suburban malls that thrived on the interstate system. Malls were able to accommodate nearly a hundred stores within a closed, climate-controlled environment. Growing environmental concerns and a subtle shift in lifestyle preferences have recently refocused attitudes toward suburban development. People are moving back to the cities, with urban gentrification bringing new life and economic vitality into exhausted city neighborhoods.

The Internet may be the biggest change that alters the development patterns of the 21st century. A recent survey of online shoppers reported that they now make 51% of their purchases online, up from 48% in 2015. Amazon’s e-commerce revenue rose 15.8% in the last 12 months alone, roughly the same as Walmart. However, Amazon posted $82.7 billion in sales, compared with $12.5 billion for Walmart, and that chasm keeps getting wider. Retail development, still a critical component of strip development, is undergoing  profound change.

Restructuring Versus Revitalizing
Revitalization efforts are slowly beginning to bring new life into many village centers and historic downtowns. Well-built abandoned mills and storefronts provide a viable framework to work with, which is not the case with the commercial strip. The challenge may not be the revitalization of the strip, but its complete restructuring. It will be up to local governments, property owners, and informed citizens to work together to redefine the role of the commercial corridor within their communities.

The Challenges

One of the first challenges to address is the linear arrangement of the commercial corridor. In many cases the corridor is relatively narrow, 200-400 feet in depth, with parcels encompassing one to ten acres, limiting configuration of new buildings. In order to break this mold, communities might consider adjacent land uses. This could offer opportunities to widen or entirely reconfigure the commercial corridor.

The character and quality of the building stock is the second challenge. Very few strip buildings inspire or stir nostalgic emotions, and were not built to last. The vast majority will need to come down, significantly impacting redevelopment costs.

Another challenge communities will face is the connectivity between the restructured strip and the rest of the community. Contemporary planning practices place a premium on walkability and intermodal connections. Maintaining sidewalks, bike trails, and shared-use paths connecting community social, civic, and recreational spaces will be vital.

The most important challenge may be igniting community leadership and nurturing effective partnerships between the local government, property owners, concerned citizens, and local businesses. Preserving downtowns, along with restructuring our strips, is key to saving New England’s economic future.

2014 Plan NH Merit Awards announced

by Robin LeBlanc | May 01st, 2014 | Leave a comment

Great examples of how the built environment can have a positive influence on a community are everywhere.  Each year, Plan NH recognizes outstanding examples from a field of submitted nominations. This year, five projects were given awards at a dinner and program held on April 2:

Honorable Mention:

Dearborn Memorial Building Manchester

Renovations to the Dearborn Memorial Building (Odd Fellows Hall) at 434 Lake Avenue in Manchester.

Built in 1908-9, this building, which has had several owners, housed the Odd Fellows Meeting Hall on the 4th floor while the bottom three have had numerous purposes through the years.  Interestingly, it is in a neighborhood not associated with the mills.  In 2010, the property was purchased by the City of Manchester, and was renovated for use by several human service agencies.  The Odd Fellows Meeting space on the top floor has been beautifully restored to much of its original look and feel.  Another Odd Fellows meeting room on the second floor was restored so that original features can still be seen.

The jury liked this project because the City took a vital lead in the restoration AND recognized the importance of having important services in the neighborhood most needing them.

Owner:  City of Manchester.  Key players:  CMK Architects, Milestone Engineering, Pilot Construction (Phase 1 renovations)


Memorial Bridge Portmsouth (re)Opending Day

Memorial Bridge Replacement Public Outreach and Involvement, Portsmouth NH.

The importance of communication between a project team and the community was significantly underscored during this important bridge-replacement project that was completed late last year.  McFarland Johnson facilitated daily interaction among project teams, the public and the media.  A special effort was made, through various means, to include those not usually involved in public dialogs and conversations.  Events, announcements and various forms of media were all used to keep the public apprised of developments, challenges and successes throughout the building process.

The jury felt that this is an outstanding example of the significance of including as many people as possible in a community undertaking, especially those who believe their voice is not usually heard.

Owner:  NHDOT and MDOT, Key players:  McFarland Johnson, HDR, and Archer Western Contractors.


Merit Awards

Endicott Hotel 03-2014

The Endicott Hotel,  Concord.

Prominently-located at the corner of Pleasant and South Main in the City of Concord, the building was erected in 1894 and was the first large commercial structure in the city on the main street but south of Pleasant and the first to be devoted completely for commercial use. During the second decade of the 20th century, the building was sold and  gradually became the Endicott Hotel.  Most of the time, the first floor remained commercial.

In 1994,  CATCH (a Concord-based non-profit which provides affordable and market-rate places to live) purchased The Endicott and through a series of smart relationships and decisions, redeveloped the property with market-rate living spaces above, and continued commercial opportunities on the ground floor.

The jury liked the idea of having choices for people to live in downtown Concord, which will contribute to the future vibrancy of our capitol city.  They also liked that this important structure was re-developed, rather than torn down, even after a fire created significant damage.  Finally, they were impressed with the thoughtful, comprehensive planning that went into this effort.

Owner:  CATCH Neighborhood Housing.  Key players:  CN Carley Associates, Steffenson Engineering, Nobis Engineering, Northway Bank, Cobb Hill Construction, Eclectica Design, Lavender and Lotus Interior Design, Renee Rucci Design and The Leading Edge Drapery.


Families in Transition Home Manchester

Families in Transition Lowell Street Addition and Historic Renovation, 136 Lowell Street, Manchester.

The scope of this work included demolition of a portion of an existing historic building and the construction of a three-story, 7700 SF addition in its place. The remaining portion of the original building underwent a complete renovation.  Built in 1846 in the Gothic Revival Style, the house had undergone many renovations and additions through the years, most recently in the 1970’s when it was a halfway house for boys.  Today, the property is a 12,300 sf facility that includes an administrator’s office, a common kitchen and dining area, and 17 units of transitional living space for homeless women and their families.

Not only was the jury impressed with the rehabilitation of the original house, and the large addition on the back which blends beautifully visually from the street, they recognized the great planning that went into this project.  The jury also liked the proximity to downtown and to public transportation.  Each juror agreed that Families in Transition is an important organization that deserves recognition, an organization that “gives voice and hope to those who have a limited voice.”

Owners:  Families in Transition and Great Bridge Properties.  Key players:  North Branch Construction, Burnell-Johnson Architects



Keene Railroad Land Development

Railroad Land Development, Keene

One block of Main Street in  downtown Keene, an old B&M railroad yard of 7+ (mostly brownfield ) acres  is now a site that includes a restaurant, hotel, offices, a Cheshire Medical Department, 8 condos, a food co-op, a 55-rooms of living spaces for seniors, and 24 living spaces for the work force.  With a bus stop, a bike path and walkable streets, the area is connected to the downtown and beyond.

The jury found this to be an outstanding example of compact, mixed-use development where it can make a real difference for the community.  They liked the integration of visual design and materials that reflect the rest of Keene, but stand alone as well.  Important, too, is that to live, work or play there, one does not necessarily need a car.

Owner:  Monadnock Economic Development.  Key players:  City of Keene, Daniel V. Scully Architects, George Hickey, Architect, CHA, SVE, Harvey Construction and Pro Con and Cheshire Builders.


 To find out more about Plan NH’s Merit Awards Program, go here.