With homeless camp gone, contractors prep riverside land for Exit 13 development

  • The homeless encampment near the old Concord Drive-in off of Black Hill Road in Concord on Thursday, September 9, 2021. The encampment needs to cleared out by the end of the month. GEOFF FORESTER

  • The homeless encampment near the old Concord Drive-in off of Black Hill Road in Concord on Sept. 9. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 9/23/2021 5:18:07 PM

Concord Police have escorted away the remaining people camping at the site of the old Concord drive-in movie theater, clearing the way for contractors to start getting the area ready for a massive mixed-used development landowners are hoping to begin building in spring 2022.

The property located between Black Hill Road and the Merrimack River off Exit 13 of I-93 is slated to include 266 housing units in five buildings and a combined gas station, car wash, sandwich shop and convenience store in its first phase, if the city approves the landowner’s plans.

On Monday, 10 Concord police officers removed eight people who were still on the property, Deputy Chief Steven Smagula told the City of Concord Steering Committee for the Plan to End Homelessness on Tuesday. The committee is charged with pushing forward a plan to address and eliminate homelessness in Concord, an ambitious goal that other U.S. communities have achieved.

Police issued summonses for criminal trespassing to four people who had already received a 10-day notice to vacate the land on Sept. 10.

Farther down the Merrimack River, Manchester has been dealing with similar large homeless camps. This week, New Hampshire State Police removed an encampment on state Department of Transportation land along the river where 50 people had been living previously, the Union Leader reported.

Outreach workers like Julie Green, the clinical director of case management at the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, had been telling the few dozen people who were staying in the woods near Manchester Street in Concord that they would need to leave for about a month prior to this week’s eviction.

Green and other advocates offered to help people get into shelters and apply for housing assistance, and in some cases, successfully found permanent housing options for individuals. But the others will likely seek out a new space, or try to return.

“I’d love to tell you I won’t be back there, but I’ll probably be back there,” Smagula said at the meeting.

Concord attorney Ari Pollack, who represents the family trust that owns the property, said a company will be clearing the trees and land to show interested partners how the site could look, while the planning process with the city proceeds.

Pollack said some development partners have already signed on.

“We have a multi-family residential apartment partner and we have a convenience store, gas and sandwich partner. Both of them are under agreement for the project,” he said.

The apartments, convenience store, gas station and sandwich shop are all planned for the first phase of the project. Later plans include retail stores, offices, a grocery store and an assisted living facility.

Pollack hopes to bring the developers’ site plans to the Planning Board before the end of the year, but he said that timeline could change. Once the application is submitted to the city, there’s a two-month review process before a public hearing is held for the project, Assistant City Planner Beth Fenstermacher said.

Currently, the owners and the city are working to define the scope of a traffic study, which will be conducted before final plans are submitted.

“Ideally, we would like to start construction when the weather breaks in the spring. But the planning process is somewhat lengthy and unpredictable and we’re at the scoping and study stage,” Pollack said.

In the meantime, Concord Police have increased patrols in the area to prevent people from moving back, Smagula said.

“If any of those individuals are caught back on the property, we may be looking at making full custody arrests,” he wrote in an email to the Monitor.

In the meeting, Smagula said that his officers recognized most of individuals they evicted this week from past encounters. Many of them have been homeless for a long time, underscoring the difficulty of a one-size-fits-all approach to the housing crisis.

One man ousted on Monday had his dog with him, Smagula said. “I will tell you that his dog was probably the best-behaved dog I’ve seen in a long, long time. It was amazing,” he said.”I’m looking at this dog going, ‘God, the people and the dog, we gotta do better than this.’ ”

He said the dog, its owner and the rest of the people living outdoors made up “a community” – just one settled in the wrong place.

One tool used in other municipalities to tackle chronic or long-term homelessness is a list that includes every individual who has been homeless for more than a year and is dealing with other issues, like a disability or substance use disorder, that make housing difficult.

Connor Spern, who was hired this week into a new position as outreach services coordinator for the Coalition, will help to make sure individuals in Concord are correctly entered onto the prioritization list maintained by the Belknap-Merrimack Community Action Program, which will act as the Regional Access Point for assessing the needs of people when they become homeless and coordinate getting them into housing.

“So that we can really get our arms around the number of people who are unsheltered homeless in Concord, and not just the number but what their name is, where they are, what their barriers are, so we can collectively start working down that list to get people housed,” said CCEH Executive Director Ellen Groh.

Adding people to the list and creating more permanent housing solutions for people in long-term homelessness will ideally prevent the Sisyphean exercise of pushing unsheltered people from one encampment, only for another to emerge.

The encampment at the old drive-in theater was the fourth one the Concord Police Department was asked to break up this year, Smagula said, and the largest since the camp behind Market Basket on Storrs Street. Some of the people displaced from Market Basket made their way to the Black Hill Road.

“Until you work people into shelters or homes, you’re really just displacing them around the city,” Smagula said.

Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.

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