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Concord zoning change opens the way for riverside development

Monitor staff
Published: 10/16/2019 3:43:42 PM

A zoning change made Tuesday has cleared the way for developers who hope to build Concord’s first large, mixed-used development on open land near Exit 13 in Concord that once held a drive-in movie theater.

On Tuesday night, the City Council approved an amendment to the zoning ordinance, altering the type of development that can occur on about 22 acres south of Manchester Street, on the east bank of the Merrimack River near Exit 13 off I-93.

In the 1980s the site was home to Concord Drive-In Theater. These days it is almost entirely overgrown.

Details about the development are still months away.

The change from an Open Space Residential designation to Gateway Performance for the area was requested by developers who have presented conceptual drawings for a large development that would include apartments, elderly housing, retail and commercial buildings. If the proposal goes ahead, it would be the first development of its kind in Concord, similar to some that are being built in Southern New Hampshire.

“I think that we are at the beginning stages of a potential gateway center to our city. Right now, it’s an old movie theater with some cracked pavement,” said Councilor Jennifer Kretovic. “I think this is really something that we should consider one stage at a time, to see what comes out of this. Supporting the amended ordinance as presented is the direction that we need to go in first, before we can make long-term speculative decisions.”

While the idea of a mixed-use project drew general support, Councilor Allan Herschlag raised concerns because of what is happening in Bedford. In that town, a large project called Market and Main that was approved as mixed-use has become controversial because developers now say they want to drop office buildings and retailers, and just build apartments and housing.

City Planner Heather Shank said that sort of switch couldn’t happen in Concord.

“We do not want this prime commercial space to be co-opted entirely by residential. We want mixed-use or we want commercial. That’s the entire intent of the requirement to have a comprehensive development plan. If someone were to come back to the planning board and say, we want to now do all residential and not commercial, they would actually need to reapply and have an amendment to their comprehensive development plan,” she said.

Despite Tuesday’s zoning change, the project is far from certain.

The land is owned by a family trust, which has a total of 82 acres between Garvins Falls Road and the river. The property includes the short, dead-end Black Hill Road.

A conceptual design drawn up by TFM, a civil engineering firm, shows a wide range of buildings along almost a half-mile of the river. They include medical offices, a hotel, a “brew pub” and several restaurant and retail buildings, as well as assisted-living space and 168 apartments or condominiums in five large buildings. About half the property would be left untouched, much of it under conservation easements, and a riverside walking trail would be included, along with canoe access.

However, the conceptual drawing is only a concept. Ari Pollock, an attorney representing the owners, said it would take months of engineering, surveying and conceptualizing before an actual proposal could be presented to the city planning board, something that is unlikely to happen until spring.

“You supplied us with a very pretty picture. It’s a nice concept. But what we have before us tonight is an amendment to the zoning ordinance. We are not the planning board. It’s going to be a long process,” Concord Mayor Jim Bouley said at Tuesday’s hearing.

Large, mixed-use developments of this type have been showing up in Southern New Hampshire, most obviously in the 80-acre Woodmont Commons in Londonderry. The planning department’s staff, which supports the rezoning request, says in a report that the project could help the region’s tight housing and rental markets.

(Leah Willingham contributed to this article. David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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