Editorial: Why not a library on South Main Street?
Downtown Concord is on a roll, and when your hand is hot, you keep on rolling. That’s why the city should make an all-out effort to recruit a developer willing to build a commercial and residential complex that includes a new city library on the South Main Street site of the state’s Employment Security building.
The string of winning rolls began with the 2005 agreement between Portsmouth developer Michael Simchick and the city to build Capital Commons, Red River Theatres and a parking garage on the block where a Sears department store once stood. It took five years to get from proposal to shovel on that project, but then the pace of redevelopment picked up.
Red River became a popular venue that helps builds community. Concord developer Steve Duprey erected one new office building and then followed it with another, now under construction. The Concord Cooperative Market renovated its building. Those projects extended the feel of being downtown to just south of the Capitol Center for the Arts. Then the city won a competitive $4.71 million grant to redesign Main Street. That was not a gamble that Concord, which will contribute another $3.6 million to the effort, was expected to win.
With the Main Street redesign still in the works, another opportunity arose. The state decided to move the Department of Employment Security from its home on South Main Street to the old state hospital campus and give the city first dibs on the property.
The building, once voted the biggest eyesore in Concord, is historic in the way poodle skirts and rotary phones are historic, but it’s ugly and not historic enough to stand in the way of progress. The building occupies a site that, with a few acquisitions, could free up an entire city block for redevelopment.
Downtown libraries, as many cities have learned, are powerful engines of economic activity. They instantly make a public space feel welcoming and safe, and they generate tremendous foot traffic. That’s why we initially supported building one on Storrs Street. But with that prospect somewhere between iffy and never, the South Main Street option became the better bet.
Using part of that site for a library would remove some property from the tax rolls, since we presume the current library would be used to alleviate the cramped conditions in City Hall and the police station. But new libraries spur economic development and raise property values in areas adjacent to them. That would help offset the loss that occurs when property is taken off the tax rolls.
Duprey’s redevelopment plan for what became the Smile building included the sale of land for Menino Place, low- and moderate-income housing built by the Concord Area Trust for Community Housing. CATCH is also gambling that people with the means to pay market-rate rents will want to live in a renovated Endicott Hotel. Locating the library on South Main Street, particularly if it’s in a complex that includes restaurants, shops and residential units, would make living downtown all the more attractive. That would help the city meet its goal of making better use of the upper floors of downtown buildings.
There are a lot of items on the city’s to do list: the Main Street redesign, more street repaving, replacing the Sewalls Falls bridge, turning Dame School into a true community center, creating a new Penacook library branch and a new central library. They can’t all be done at once. But when money is cheap and opportunity knocks, it makes sense to answer the door if a developer comes calling and wants to build a library complex.