When he arrived in Nashua 16 years ago, Roger Houston didn’t need a map to tell him he wasn’t in Colorado anymore.
“When I was in Arvada (Colorado), we annexed an area the size of Nashua,” said the Gate City’s director of planning. “I was involved in several other, smaller annexations. That wasn’t unusual. In fact, we were competing with other cities in annexing land.”
But New Hampshire has neither the vast “wide open spaces” nor the legal traditions of many of the western states, where a city that finds itself nearly “built out” can simply acquire adjacent land to build on. Nashua, with its 32 square miles, doesn’t have the option of annexing portions of Hollis, Brookline or Amherst.
Land along the Daniel Webster highway in the city’s south end has been “almost entirely developed since the 1990s,” Houston said, and space for new commercial or industrial buildings is just about gone in other parts of the city as well. What some developers have been doing in Nashua, however, shows that the concept of recycling can apply to old buildings as well as aluminum cans.
“Some of the mill buildings have been converted to housing, others to incubator space,” Houston said. “A lot of the downtown area and the millyard have mixed use development — some of the incubator businesses with some residential uses. It seems to be working quite well. Downtown has had a resurgence. We hope it continues as we try to preserve buildings that can be reused.”
What vacant land is left in Nashua is mostly vacant for a reason, said Jay Minkarah, the city’s director of economic development. “It’s (designated) ‘green lands’ or it has some development obstacles in terms of access, topography, wetlands or significant congestion. So for the most part, the city is in a redevelopment mode.”
Adapting an old, vacated building to a new use is neither simple nor easy, Minkarah said. As a rule, the older the building, the greater and more costly the fix-up problems.
“The city of Nashua is an older industrial city, and you have older industrial areas,” Minkarah said. “Basically, some level of contamination has resulted from past manufacturing.” Nashua has successfully pursued grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up areas designated as brownfields – contaminated industrial sites — and will continue to do so, Minkarah said.
“The city has been fairly aggressive in getting these sites cleaned up,” he said. The prospect of using a clean-up site for a planned redevelopment creates an added incentive, he noted. “It’s always important to do that from an environmental point of view, but when you’re built out it’s even more important. We still have some areas we need to put some financial investment in to get them fixed up and put back on the market.”
The Whitney Screw building on Broad Street is one example of an old manufacturing building and former cleanup site that now houses several local retail establishments. The former Mohawk Tannery in the city’s central business district is one the city is currently studying.
“That property is currently under an agreement with the developer,” said Minkarah. “We’re currently trying to assess what the clean-up cost is going to be and what is acceptable to the (state) Department of Environmental Services and the EPA.”
The Richmond Company of Peabody, Mass., has tentative plans for a combined residential and commercial development on the site. The residential part would include both single-family and townhouses with “a fairly significant outdoor recreation/conservation component,” Minkarah said, along with a neighborhood shopping area. “We’re hoping the project will be a success. We have to make sure the cleanup alternatives are acceptable and affordable for the project to be feasible.”
Another significant chunk of land should soon be available for redevelopment, as the Dow Chemical Company is in the process of demolishing the building that housed its former Hampshire Chemical Company on 453 acres in south Nashua. That’s where the city hopes to build a train depot if and when the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority extends passenger train service from Lowell to Nashua. The city plans to foster substantial mixed-use residential and commercial development around the proposed train station that will generate revenue to cover the cost of the project.
A number of redevelopment projects have long since been a success, including the Millyard Technology Park, where old mill buildings now house new, primarily high-tech companies. A large number of tech firms also are among the 60 tenants in the 450,000-square-foot building, with a name and address that are identical.
Another, One Chestnut Street, is a former warehouse for the adjacent textile mills that have since been converted to the Clocktower Place residential complex.
An open question
While new retail development in recent years has taken place, most notably along the strip malls on the heavily traveled Amherst Street, much has occurred closer to downtown. The Nashua Mall, off Exit 6 on the Everett Turnpike, has undergone a transformation in recent years, bringing in a Home Depot, a Christmas Tree Shops store and a Shorty’s restaurant, among others. On Main Street, the former Simoneau Plaza, the first auto-oriented shopping center in New Hampshire, has undergone a thorough renovation and is now The Marketplace, with a new set of retail tenants.
What course future development takes is still an open question, subject not only to city land use ordinances, but also to market forces.
Residential growth has not been a problem, said Houston, since population has been flat in the Gate City in recent years. Retail development adds substantially to the tax base, but industrial enterprises generally provide better jobs. The city has about 150 acres available for development near the Sheraton Nashua Hotel off Spit Brook Road, but access and traffic congestion could be obstacles to any future development plan.
Another 200 acres at the Westwood Park office park off Route 101-A was taken off the table when the city purchased the land from Pennichuck Water Works and designated it as conservation land.
Michael Monks, the Nashua real estate broker for the project, said the city missed an opportunity to combine economic growth with environmental protection.
“One has to wonder why portions of it could not be used and developed in an eco-friendly fashion, allowing protective covenants as to the type of uses and what was constructed,” said Monks, contending that office and research and development uses could have been consistent with the goal of protecting the adjacent watershed.
Brian McCarthy, president of the Nashua Board of Aldermen, said the board and city officials were convinced otherwise.
“It would have required two 600-foot bridges across the water supply in the middle of wetlands,” McCarthy said of the proposed expansion of Westwood Park. Additional parking lots and traffic would create further problems, he said, including “the attendant risk of oil and gas spills.”
Meanwhile, the aldermanic Planning and Economic Development Committee is working on a 400-page document expected to be the final draft of the city’s revised land use code. Chairman David Rootovich said some of the proposals include stricter landscaping requirements and other rules “to the point (of mandating) where signs can be put in windows. I would oppose things of that nature,” he said.
Katherine Hersh, director of community and economic development for the city, said regulations dealing with the esthetic issues are aimed at ensuring the kind of development that will keep Nashua an attractive community. That, in turn, will encourage more quality development, she said, noting that Nashua has a strong track record in that regard.
“The city is actually doing very well, if the amount of applications, of inquiries and submissions to the planning and zoning boards is any indication,” Hersh said. “The city is a very desirable place to be.”