How will the dilapidated DOT buildings factor in the I-93 project?

  • The old N.H. Department of Transportation buildings off Stickney Avenue in downtown Concord on Thursday evening. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/22/2018 8:12:07 PM

There are a lot of moving parts in the $268 million plan to widen I-93 through Concord and Bow, but sometimes it’s the parts that aren’t moving that draw attention.

For example, consider those dilapidated Department of Transportation buildings between Loudon Road and the bus terminal. Even though they won’t be directly impacted by all the proposed roadwork that will be happening nearby, they are a big part of the city’s interest in the project.

“We want them impacted,” said Philip Hastings, former president of the  Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce Board, during a Tuesday chamber lunch meeting about the massive project. “This is not just about moving cars from Point A to Point B. … It’s about how the city is viewed from the highway, a gateway into Concord.”

Concord officials have long lamented the grubby appearance of the former state highway garage because of its prominence for the tens of thousands of cars that drive past on I-93 every day. They see the highway widening project as a once-in-a-generation chance to improve the most-used gateway into the city.

According to an official history of the site from the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources, the six-acre property has been owned by the state since 1925, when it was bought from Caroline Foster, the widow of local coal baron Joseph Stickney, whose name lives on on the nearby street. The first highway garage was built in 1926, with new buildings added in 1941, 1948 and 1962, plus additions and expansions in many other years, used for everything from storage of highway materials and vehicles to a paint shop and repair garage.

The site was vacated in 2006 when the DOT moved to its current Concord home on Hazen Drive, and has been slowly falling apart since. The five buildings are now used only for some storage by state agencies. From certain angles the property appears abandoned, lined with rusty chain-link fences and No Trespassing signs.

The good news for the city is that the Department of Transportation plans to tear the buildings down and sell off the land at some point, using the I-93 project as a sort of spur to get it done.

“We realize that disposition of the former Highway Garage site and property … should be done in conjunction with this project,” DOT Commissioner Victoria Sheehan wrote in a July 18, 2018, letter to Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord. “Whether removal in the two-year time frame recommended is achievable needs to be evaluated, but is a good goal to start with.”

The bad news is that it’s not clear who would pay to develop the property, since the I-93 project itself is nowhere near being fully funded under the Ten-Year Highway Plan. Nor is it clear when any reuse of the land could happen, since it might be needed as a place to park construction equipment for the decade-long highway project.

“Any sale of surplus state property would by law be first offered to the city of Concord, but considering the varied interests and the complications with the Bow-Concord (highway) construction timing, a more collaborative process … would seem more likely. The Department will work in partnership with the city toward an appropriate development solution that would likely include transit operations, structured parking, and vertical development/ air rights, etc.,” Sheehan wrote in the letter.

If Concord goes through with plans to expand Storrs Street to the north, the parcel would be linked to the downtown and the highway, increasing its value.

Hastings’ comments about the buildings came Tuesday during a DOT presentation hosted by the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce about the proposal to widen I-93 from the intersection of I-89 north past Exit 15, making changes to all of the exits and replacing a number of bridges. It was given by Gene McCarthy of McFarland-Johnson and Don Lyford of New Hampshire DOT, two project managers.

The project has been discussed since 2002 but is only now gearing for the actual go-ahead, with the engineering firm of McFarland-Johnson Inc. having put together what it calls its Preferred Alternative, following two years of hearings and meetings.

Even if the state approves the project this coming spring, work would not start until 2023 at the earliest and could last more than a decade, since there isn’t enough money in the state’s Ten-Year Highway Plan to do it all.

The city of Concord has other concerns about the preferred alternative, most notably the fact that it doesn’t provide easy pedestrian access from downtown to the north bank of the Merrimack River.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor .com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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