Downtown Makeover


By: Chris Outcalt
Date: Thursday, Feb 22, 2007
Publication: Portsmouth Herald

PORTSMOUTH -- Immediately after finalizing one major project, the Historic District Commission delved into another on Wednesday.

After reviewing the application over a span of nine meetings, the commission approved the Westin hotel project. The Deer Street complex will include a 207-room hotel, a 20,000-square-foot conference center, a public parking garage and condominiums.

"I think your design is quite inspired," said board member Sandra Dika. "I'm pretty excited about it."

Then the board got its first look at the proposed redevelopment of the Parade Mall site, widely considered a downtown eyesore.

An artist's rendering shows the plan for the Parade Mall site. The proposal includes a new pedestrian walkway connecting the downtown and the northern tier.

The plan is centered around creating pedestrian-friendly access and walkways that would connect with the rest of the city.

"We thought about how we would get people from different areas of the city," said Lisa DeStefano, an architect for the project. "How do we create a loop through Market Square and Congress Street and then back around?"

Part of her answer is to create a new road through the site. The proposed access way would be extension of the Vaughan Mall walkway.

"We're really trying to turn this site inside out," said David Manfredi of Elkus/Manfredi Architects.

"And probably the biggest move is the introduction of a new street that is connected to the city grid."

In addition to a new road, the project calls for wide brick sidewalks with trees, flowers, outdoor café seating and storefront access. Approximately 20 retail shops would cover roughly 70,000 square feet. The plan also includes 28 condominiums ranging from one to three bedrooms and 150,000 square feet of office space. The site would also house a 147-room hotel and have underground garage parking for about 300 cars.

"I hope this almost looks foreign to you because it's so different from what's there today," said Manfredi. "The mix of uses will bring different people Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. than on Saturday and Sunday evening."

The commission responded favorably to project.

"I'm so pleased to see that you spent so much time with the concept," said Dika. "I think starting with this and studying the northern tier work and thinking about pedestrians gives us a much better chance to get where we want to with this project."

The board wrestled with whether a project like this that sits outside the immediate historic center of the city should be given more design leeway.

"The farther we get away from the city core, I think the more we should explore the freedom to expand our range of design options," said board member Richard Katz.

"While I'm very appreciative of the effort you've made, I see too much red brick," said city councilor Ned Raynolds. "Even though these buildings are in the Historic District, I would like us to consider other materials and colors."

HDC Chairman John Rice agreed with Raynolds.

"It seems like you're trying to create a sense of place, but at the same time as I look at both renderings I feel it's not lively," said Rice. "These buildings need more life in them."

The next step for the Parade Mall project is at least one more work session with the HDC before the formal review begins.

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