My Turn: Take a forward-looking approach to Exit 17 development

For the Monitor
Published: 11/17/2019 6:15:10 AM

Years ago, I wrote a letter to the Monitor criticizing Concord’s decision to rezone land at the Interstate 93 Exit 17/Whitney Road junction to allow commercial development.

I was concerned that doing so was contrary to the city’s master plan, which called for village-centered commercial development. I thought it would lead to traffic congestion and pressure to expand the commercial zone as both Concord and Canterbury lined up to cash in on highway interchange development and its bonanza of tax revenue.

It now appears this is coming to pass with recent news, welcomed by nearly everyone, of Market Basket’s intention to anchor a new strip mall. Exit 17 may well be on its way to the fate of other interstate interchanges with high traffic counts: years of automobile infrastructure construction and yet another wave of cookie-cutter commercial development entirely dependent on auto access for its viability (think Exit 20).

The business-as-usual approach to retail commercial is mostly characterized by energy and greenhouse gas intensive development that, unfortunately, is the least expensive way to develop. This includes lots of high-energy-input concrete, steel and asphalt; fossil fuel heated and cooled buildings with the minimum of energy code compliance; and little to no incorporation of renewable energy.

But Concord is in a new era and must start viewing these developments differently. Last year, the city adopted an energy and climate strategy that calls for 100% renewable electricity use by 2030 and all energy use by 2050. This is an audacious goal that requires bold thinking in all facets of development: environmentally friendly design, sustainable construction methods and materials, and building energy use. If retail commercial development is to be the fate of Exit 17, let’s embrace this vision.

With the Exit 17 development, city planners, the Concord Crossing developers, Unitil and those commercial interests lined up to lease space (most especially Market Basket) ought to commit to a new development paradigm – one that demonstrates state of the art in sustainable design, construction and energy use.

Some examples include:

■Using engineered wood sourced from the Northeast to construct buildings, thereby storing carbon for decades to come and displacing the huge energy input needed to make concrete and steel.

■Heating the buildings with waste heat piped from the nearby trash-to-energy plant, or committing to renewable sources for heating and cooling buildings such is an efficient wood energy district heat plant or heat pumps with electricity sourced from solar panels.

■Stretching beyond the current 2015 energy code requirements to make sure energy use in the buildings is state of the art.

■Solar PV on all available rooftops to provide electricity.

■Full use of daylighting to light all buildings through skylights and other design features.

■Lots of trees to provide shade to keep buildings cool in the summer and lower the “heat island” effect from asphalt parking lots.

■Intelligent management of stormwater to minimize runoff pollution.

The developers will no doubt insist that the costs of subscribing to such a progressive vision are prohibitive. This is more expensive development, at least in the initial capital outlay, but will save money in the long run. Unitil has funds to help the developers with planning for these progressive design features. City planners and land-use officials must insist that this development aspire to a higher standard and get involved in the early design stages.

Let the Exit 17 development serve as a new paradigm for all commercial development in greater Concord. Consumers, especially younger families we want to stay in New Hampshire, are eager to support this forward-looking approach and would be more inclined to shop here. In the long run it is the right thing to do and will reward those making the investment. It also demonstrates that the city’s commitment to its bold energy vision goes beyond the aspirational to truly embrace an exciting new future for our Capital City.

(Charlie Niebling lives in Boscawen.)

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