Somersworth envisions walkable, greener downtown

SOMERSWORTH — Turning the center of the Somersworth Plaza into a lush park, without losing valuable parking is a possible centerpiece to the development of downtown.

The city of Somersworth received a Plan New Hampshire grant to study the aging and under-used Somersworth Plaza, and during the process expanded the scope to include adjacent parts of Main Street.

The meeting of stakeholders took place over two days and included a walking tour, meetings with city officials and two public forums. People gathered Saturday, the second day of the charrette, at the Somersworth High School CTC theater to hear the results.

According to North Sturtevant, of JSA Architects, the primary area of focus now runs roughly from Stein Park (adjacent to the Summersworth Historical Museum) to the SS Somersworth Park (adjacent to the former police station) on Main Street.

Sturtevant said there is incredible passion and commitment among the residents to do something with the focus area and that really came through during the whole weekend.

“There’s a huge sense of pride in the community,” he said. “It is a cool branding opportunity that this is the only Somersworth in the world.”

He said that during the walking tour there were obvious images of economic stress, but also some beautiful natural features like the canal and the riverfront obscured by vegetation or buildings.

Rick Lundborn, a civil engineer with CLD/Fuss & O’Neill, gave an overview of a strategy for the Somersworth Plaza.

He showed a rendering that organizes the parking around a central green space, adds a building and makes the parking more inviting by moving it right up to the doors of the existing businesses.

“It’s better for the tenants and there’s still plenty of room in the center to have festivals,” he said.

To develop the additional building the city would put it out to bid and the developer could help pay for some of the changes that need to be done overall.

Lundborn pointed out that between the rows of cars the aisles about 30 feet versus the standard of about 24 feet.

“That’s an awful lot of wasted space,” Lunborn said. “You could do a lot with that and put other things in there.”

Between the nearest parking spaces and the building is a lane of about 42 to 45 feet that people have to cross; it would be much better if they could pull right up to the door.

He said the facade could be pulled back and redesigned to make it easier to see what the stores are doing. He recommended the city pull inspiration from the 38 Market Street block, that has a lot of the original detail.

PlanNH Executive Director of Robin LeBlanc said in evaluating the charrette it is necessary to pose a question.

“What is the change that Somersworth wants to make happen?” LeBlanc said. “It is important to start with what the city has, like a post office downtown, the city hall, a library and coffee shop.”

Ideas for the target area included more green space, a playground, a dog park, and walkable streets.

With regard to what types of businesses should be targeted, LeBlanc said the city should support those already there before looking to bring in new ones. They could try to fill the empty storefronts with pop-up shops.

There was also a discussion of a river walk that could run behind the canals and even the option to move the old pedestrian bridge so that it comes out right at the new green space that would be in the Plaza. The canal could become a point of identity.

Shanna Saunders, Somersworth director of planning and community development, said she was very pleased with the charrette and the participation by the public.

“It was amazing we had 25 people at 1 p.m. on Friday, 40 at 3:30 p.m. and then another 25 came at 6 p.m. and then (Saturday) we got a great turn out as well.

With regard to the different ideas Saunders said they could pick off the low-hanging fruit right away.

“Let’s go get this done,” she said.

The report from Plan NH should be ready in four to six weeks.

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