Luxury housing is altering the faces of the two Portsmouth's in an old New Hampshire port, city-style living takes off


By: James Vaznis
Date: Sunday, Sep 4, 2005
Publication: Boston Globe

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. On balmy summer evenings, locals and tourists pack the bars along the Piscataqua River for drinks, food, and sunset views. With its vibrant art scene, night life, and infusion of high-tech jobs, this historic seaport is increasingly attracting young professionals, empty nesters and retirees, who want not only to visit, but to live here.

That desire is fueling a real estate boom downtown, where condominiums and town houses have been going up beside stately century-old buildings, with selling prices of $450,000 to more than $1 million, an unusually high price for this housing market. Developers say they initially banked on luring residents from higher-priced markets like Boston, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, but most of the units have been selling to locals who are already familiar with what the city has to offer. In Market Square, the heart of the downtown, construction crews have knocked down a dilapidated building next to one of the city's most recognizable landmarks, the white-steepled North Church. In its place will rise a five-story building with luxury condominiums filling the top three floors. Across from the city's parking garage, steel girders are being erect ed for a Hilton Hotel and an adjacent building of 21 condos, whose owners will have access to the hotel's amenities, such as valet parking and room service.

At least three other projects are in the works for Portsmouth, including 20 penthouse condos that will be part of a new Sheraton Hotel conference center. These more ambitious projects follow last year's construction of a condominium building on the corner of a popular entry point into downtown and a row of red-brick town houses that run the length of a city block.

"You can have a city lifestyle in Portsmouth without being in a big city," said Jeff Johnston, a partner in Cathartes Private Investments in Boston, which is developing the 21-unit Harbour Hill condominiums and the Hilton.

And residents can have big-city jobs, too. Portsmouth is a favorite among high-tech entrepreneurs who want to start small while living in a community where they can kayak before they go to work. Lonza Biologies, for example, around which the state hopes to build a bio-tech sector, has sleek offices at the former Pease Air Force Base.

The city's largest employer is Liberty Mutual, with a workforce of 1,800.

The 11 town houses that kicked off the high-end condo market two years ago sparked controversy, because the building contained no space for shops or restaurants. Some city leaders and residents worried the downtown could become too residential, squeezing out businesses and jeopardizing the city's huge tourism market.

In response, the City Council changed downtown zoning a few months ago to require the first floors of new buildings to be reserved for business.

And the Historic District Commission is carefully examining the historic value of each building before deciding if it can be razed.

The commission also is closely reviewing the designs of new buildings to make sure the heights, facades, and even the bricks that are used blend in with surrounding buildings. The city doesn't want a modern-looking building going up in the downtown that is completely out of character.

"I don't think any of us want to see a glass pyramid like the one at the Louvre in downtown Portsmouth," said John Rice, chairman of the Historic District Commission, referring to the controversial piece of modern architecture outside the Paris museum, a onetime royal residence that dates to the 13th century.

Sales of the 11 town houses started off slow, selling in the mid-$400,000s before construction began. The red-brick building, which replaced a parking lot behind Market Square, resembles the row houses that define Boston's Back Bay and South End. The four-story units, which average about 2,800 square feet,feature ground-level garage parking, a balcony, three bedrooms, and 2 1/2 bathrooms.

"We didn't know if the market was there," said Eric Chinburg, the developer behind the project. "There was a little bit of sweating going on."

Sales, however, picked up once the building neared completion and so did the selling prices, with one corner unit recently going for over $1 million.

Gerald F. Giles, a retired lawyer, and his wife, Judith Giles, gave up an 800-square-foot condominium in downtown Portsmouth that had views of the Piscataqua River to be among the first to move into one of the town houses. With 3,000 square feet, the couple now have plenty of room when some of their 10 grandchildren visit.

Rob and Kiley Hamblet moved from neighboring New Castle to one of the townhouses.

"For a while, we were caught up with finding a house with a gourmet kitchen and formal dining room," said Kiley Hamblet. "But it came down to a lifestyle decision. We found ourselves eating in the city, shopping in the city, and walking the dog in the city.

"My friends laugh when I call Portsmouth `the city.' "

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