Portsmouth mall to be razed, and its neighborhood renewed


By: Tom Long
Date: Sunday, Aug 19, 2007
Publication: The Boston Globe

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Usually when a vintage building is about to be razed, somebody gets concerned. Quite the opposite is happening in Portsmouth, where one of its most notorious eyesores is about to get replaced.

Parade Mall, an asphalt and steel relic of 1970s-style urban renewal plunked down amid the brick and beam 19th-century buildings of the historic Port City, will be razed and replaced with a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of residences, restaurants, retail outlets and office space.

"It's the latest piece in the redevelopment of the northern tier of the city," Mayor Steve Marchand said last week.

Other proposed developments in the area include a Westin Hotel, conference center and parking garage and a mixed-use development planned for the former Portsmouth Herald newspaper property.

The stores and homes that once comprised a thriving Italian immigrant community on the site were razed to make way for the 4-acre Parade Mall three decades ago.

"It's as if they dropped a big metal box in the middle of a historic district. They paved paradise and put in a parking lot," said Lisa DeStefano, a Portsmouth architect who has represented the new developers, Cathartes Private Investments of Boston, before various city boards as the project wended its way through the approval process.

"I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time," said Judy Murphy of Kittery, Maine, who grew up in Portsmouth and remembers shopping for authentic pepperoni and other hard-to-find items in an Italian grocery in the former neighborhood.

"At the time, people thought it was important to have a shopping mall with a parking lot surrounding it, " said DeStefano.

But it was a mistake. Retail shops in the brown steel building never flourished. It is now occupied by a travel agency, an insurance company and social service agencies.

"Some day historians may lobby to prevent the destruction of this building since it represents one of the greatest architectural blunders in the city's long history," according to a list of the 10 worst places in Portsmouth published in the New Hampshire Gazette last year.

So far, no historians have sprung to the mall's defense.

The current plan calls for the mall, which looks like a concrete and steel barge that's run aground, to be replaced by four brick buildings that will house restaurants and retail space, residences, offices and a small hotel. An underground parking lot will hold about 350 cars.

"We're bringing the buildings back to the street and putting the cars underground," said Jeffrey Johnston, a Cathartes Private Investments partner.

A 22-foot wide sidewalk, or "broadwalk," will bisect the property. "We want to create a pedestrian-friendly environment in which residents or guests at the hotel will be able to walk to work, the restaurants and retail outlets and will never need a car," said Johnston.

The redevelopment of the area began last year when the adjacent Hilton Garden Inn and Harbour Hill Condominium complex opened. Cathartes also developed the hotel.

The developers worked closely with officials in this picturesque ocean-side city.

"I think most developers bring their projects to the city and ask for forgiveness rather than permission," said Marchand. "But this is not the case here. The developer has been very proactive and progressive in working with the city. "

Johnston said the redevelopment will cost "north of $100 million." The underground garage alone will cost $40 million.

The project was approved by the city's Planning Board last month. "I think it's one of the most exciting projects in New Hampshire," said Johnston. "I don't think there's anything like it in the state."

Construction is expected to begin next spring. And aesthetics won't be the only benefit for Portsmouth. The project is expected to bring 800 permanent jobs.

"We're going to bring the neighborhood back to life," said DeStefano, who grew up in Portsmouth and whose great-grandfather and grandfather lived in the Italian community that was razed for the mall.

"I'm thrilled to be a part of it."

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