On the waterfront: Dover redevelopment plans taking shape

Dana Lynch has waited a long time for a project that he envisions will change the appearance and economic potential of the city of Dover.

Lynch was the first chairman of what is now the Cochecho Waterfront Development Advisory Committee. The group’s mission is to spearhead development of a 30-acre parcel of land that borders the Cochecho River.

After four years of discussion and revamped proposals, Lynch says he is “extremely excited” by the prospect for redevelopment of the city’s waterfront. “It’s such a unique piece of property. It’s a valid project and an economic engine for the downtown.”

Once the home of wharfs and warehouses, the riverfront was a lively trading center for shipping. Today, the area is devoid of any commercial activity. It is described as a “brownfield,” a site with environmental obstacles to redevelopment.

Four years ago, the Dover City Council created the advisory committee and moved the Public Works Department from the riverfront. The city had previously relocated the city’s wastewater treatment plant to another location on the Cochecho River in anticipation of the downtown waterfront revitalization.

Jack Mettee, current chairman of the advisory committee, agreed that the project has been in the planning stage for a long time, but he also sees light at the end of the planning tunnel. “Some of us who have been working on the waterfront parcel redevelopment area go back 20 to 25 years,” he said. “Hopefully now we’re on the brink of having re-development begin.”

Dover’s waterfront differs greatly from that of the neighboring city of Portsmouth, which has developed nearly all of the available space there. Dover’s plans aren’t designed to compete with the Port City, said Mettee. “I think Dover has its own unique set of circumstances that make Dover different, and in some ways we have our own set of attractions that you couldn’t get in Portsmouth. We’re going the make this area very attractive, not only for Dover residents, but people in the region.”

Steve Bird, assistant planning director and project manager, said that the final redevelopment will result in a mixed-use area, featuring residential and commercial and retail development.

One three-story structure on the drawing board would house a restaurant as well as commercial or office space. “The idea is to get people to live there, to work there, and to want to come to the riverfront area and enjoy what Dover has to offer. The area is really ripe for development,” said Bird.

He also pointed out that the city will retain ownership of a public park along the river, to be developed into a recreational area consisting of walking trails and providing access to the waterfront. A public pavilion also is included in the planning process.

The museum factor

To accomplish redevelopment, the city issued requests for proposals from potential developers, ultimately choosing the Boston-based firm of Dickinson Development. Mettee pointed out that the project was always envisioned as a public/private partnership. “We never saw this as just the city working on it. We thought it would be much better to bring in a private developer with a lot of experience in large developments of this sort.”

Mettee said that Dickinson was picked after a series of interviews with private developers, since the firm “had done a number of similar projects, and in particular they had worked in the area of redeveloping brownfield sites. I think that was very important to the committee.”

Mark Dickinson, president of Dickinson Development, said that the final design will need some tweaking, and that the redevelopment project will depend on the region’s economy. In addition to commercial buildings, the firm has proposed 150 residential units, with different price points. They will include one-story apartment-style units, moderately priced residences of 1,300 square feet and larger, pricier townhouses.

“The next step now that we’ve presented this plan is for the committee to come up with the final guidelines,” he said.

The city has hired The Cecil Group of Boston as a consultant to work on urban design guidelines for the project.

Jack Buckley is executive director of the Dover Housing Authority, the agency designated by the city council to approve the final waterfront redevelopment plan.

He said that the pending relocation of the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire from Portsmouth to downtown Dover, near the river should provide the spark that will lead to commercial and residential interest in the waterfront acreage.

Museum officials, in need of more space and better parking, had sought another location in Portsmouth, but chose a renovated recreation building in Dover for its new home instead.

Buckley pointed out that the available Dover building is triple the size of the museum’s current building.

“The museum is tentatively scheduled to open around the middle of July. It’s a done deal. They’ve secured financing, and construction is already under way.”

According to Buckley, the museum “brings some 95,000 people into the state. We anticipate the museum will bring in many thousands of people into the downtown.”

Buckley also noted that a new access bridge will be built to provide vehicular access to the redevelopment area. It will, when complete, replace the Washington Street pedestrian bridge. Eighty per cent of the cost of that project will be state-funded, with the rest paid by the city.

Committee Chairman Mettee predicted that the actual waterfront redevelopment could begin by next year or 2010.

“I think that once the city reaches agreement with the developer, and we enact the land disposition agreement, that will be the starting point for the development company to do final designs and planning for the waterfront. They will be required to get a number of local and state permits, which will take a matter of months.”

The committee has already held over 50 meetings with land use design consultants. It also plans a public hearing for citizen input.

“We try to accommodate as many opinions as possible,” said Mettee. “All through that process, Dickinson has made changes when we’ve asked for them. I think that they have been a very good partner in the process so far.”