AIANH spearheads effort to renew downtown Durham

After a year of study, a committee in Durham is close to completing the final design concept for a new village center that, if implemented, would replace a nearly 10-acre strip mall — Mill Plaza, located on Mill Road — next to the University of New Hampshire.

Three architectural teams have donated their efforts to the project, an initiative of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

According to Patricia Sherman, a retired architect, the organization chose the town as part of the “Blueprint for America,” a nationwide commitment to mark the 150th anniversary of the AIA’s founding.

“We decided that we would try to work with a community and help them develop a parcel in a way where it was a very collaborative process.”

Sherman spearheaded the project for the AIANH.

“I sort of dreamed it up. It takes a lot of time to do something like this, and because I’m retired, I have a little more time than most of my compatriots.”

Sherman said that the architectural group sent out requests for proposals to every town and city in the state.

“We eventually short-listed it down to six, and chose Durham for a whole lot of reasons that made sense.”

AIANH has an extensive list of requirements to qualify for the program. They include, but are not limited to:

• Preservation of open space and the environment in an urban area

• Pedestrian access and the reduction of vehicular traffic

• The willingness of the municipality to make zoning changes for the project

• A developer willing to partner with the community to move the project forward

• Excellence of project design

As part of the collaboration, AIA New Hampshire has partnered with the town, along with PlanNH, The Jordan Institute, Granite State Landscape Architects and the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance.

Three teams of architects were involved in the design process. The firms, which donated the time pro bono, included Lavallee Brensinger Architects of Manchester, Collaborative Designs Inc., Kingston, Schoonmaker Architects, Durham, Pro Con Inc., Hooksett, Woodburn & Co., architect Walter Rous of Durham, Fabianna Orlando Associates, Portsmouth, Rob Westhelle Associates, Portsmouth, JSA Inc., Portsmouth, and The Outdoor Room, Newmarket.

Hybrid plan

After three rounds of draft proposals for the property, the teams presented what they call a “hybrid” concept for redevelopment to the public. About 75 Durham residents attended the Feb. 20 forum to see the plan, comment on it and ask questions of the Mill Plaza Study Committee which is working on a finished plan.

Dave Howland, who chairs the committee, said that the town is “very fortunate” to have been chosen for the AIANH project. “Durham is an interesting college town community, and I think that played a role in their selection by the AIANH. We as a committee looked at our town’s master plan and goals, and lined them up with the architectural organization’s priorities, and they were strikingly similar.”

Howland also pointed out that the AIANH’s involvement in the project was crucial to the committee’s progress in developing proposals for re-development of the current shopping area.

“I think that without the AIA, we would have come up with a far more humble and limited product. It might have been similar in structure, but it certainly would not have been as in-depth. Having them involved in the project allowed us to double or triple our efforts.”

The advisory committee asked AIANH to work on several proposals, with the objective of producing alternatives for the plaza’s redevelopment.

“We were able to narrow that down. The hybrid plan is kind of a distillate of the best ideas that we saw in the others.” He added, “I think we ended up with something that is reflective of the evolution of our thinking about this.” Howland said that the final proposal includes some but not all of the earlier drafts.

Specifically, the final plan could result in demolition of the some of the existing retail buildings, locate a multi-level parking garage in the center of the property, create pedestrian paths through the newly-developed center, and provide a buffer to protect the adjacent College Brook. It also would strive to protect the residential area behind the plaza from noise.

Several residents at the recent forum also expressed concerns about light pollution, something the committee is hoping to mitigate through design.

The AIANH architects, Howland said, will work with the advisory committee all the way through the design process, and the completion of a final report. That document will be forwarded to the Durham zoning board and town council for their consideration.

Committee chair Howland noted that the site is privately owned and requires a commitment from its owner, John Pinto.

“A lot of it depends on how John views it, what he would like to do, and what the market conditions are. What we have now on the site we could live with, but it could be a lot better.”

The advisory committee hopes to finish its deliberations by March, but committing it to paper could take longer.

While the actual Village Center project could take years to complete, Howland, said that the hope is something will be accomplished “pretty soon.”