On the waterfront

Downstream of the great textile mills that once fueled Dover’s booming manufacturing economy, the city is planning to resurrect 30 acres of vacant waterfront land on the Cocheco River as a tony mixed-use development.

“We want the highest and best use of the area right in our urban core,” said Dover Economic Development Director Beth Thompson. “It’s going to be destination shopping and retail, and residential will follow nicely. You’ll have restaurants, some boutiques — fun stuff. You want a little flavor of Newport or Newburyport.”

A heartbeat from downtown Dover, the rangy stretch of city-owned land sits across the winding river from the old town landing, where 19th century schooners brought in raw materials like cotton and coal and left with textiles and other goods. The plan to develop it comes after years of less-than-ideal use as the site for a wastewater treatment plant, a public works facility and more, city officials say. “It’s an exciting time,” said Dover Mayor Scott Myers. “Dover has a very strong maritime history. In its heyday, three-masted schooners came all the way into downtown Dover. Now the river is being dredged to a seven-foot minimum depth at mean low tide — meaning boats can roll up anytime of day. This will be exciting because folks [on tour boats] will be able to head north and come to Dover as a destination. I don’t know if we’ll rival Portsmouth, but our downtown has certainly come a phenomenal distance in the last 10 years.”

On May 15, the Cocheco Waterfront Development Advisory Committee issued a request for qualifications looking for a “creative developer” to turn the vacant waterfront lot into “a vibrant urban waterfront district.” The applications were due by a June 30 deadline. Sometime this summer, the year-old committee charged with directing the redevelopment of the Cocheco Waterfront District will sort through the candidates and winnow them down to half a dozen finalists, with a final choice due later in the year, according to committee chairman Dana Lynch.

“We are looking for as many qualified people as possible,” quipped Lynch, giving a tour of the waterfront site, the river glinting behind a curtain of shrubs and trees. “First, we’ll figure out the guest list. Then we’ll decide who to invite to the party.”

Complicated project

Yet to be decided is whether to have a single developer take over the whole project or have several developers coordinate a more diverse mix of uses and styles, according to Thompson.

“There are two schools of thought,” Thompson said. “One is to look for one developer because it’s easier to manage the process, and no one’s getting in each other’s way; the other is to have a more piecemeal approach because it won’t look homogeneous and you’d get more ideas. People who have done the multi-faceted approach have said it was a bear to manage, but you do what’s best for the project, not your own office.”

The project is complicated by the fact that the site has had numerous uses since Dover’s founding in 1623, said Thompson. “It’s still a brownfields site. It’s urban, but there are parts of it you couldn’t put buildings on. You could pave it or leave it green. There were tanneries but also a municipal landfill nearby, and when it was a public works facility, there was fuel storage there.”

With $50,000 so far set aside by the city to pay for outside help, the Planning Department is putting together a request for proposal for a consultant to help vet potential developers, negotiate with them and sort out financial issues.

“We’ve decided that whatever deal we make with a developer, the city will receive back some kind of value, at least the appraised value of the site. That would allow us to be creative in what we do down there,” said Myers. “There are all kinds of options, but we need a performance measure and a way to hold developers to them.”

“It’s a huge project, and we want to make sure they [developers] understand the demographics of the area,” said Thompson. “The committee is looking to hire a consultant to usher them through the process of negotiating with the desired entity to the final end product. There are all kinds of financial issues to sort out, and although the staff could do it, the city is growing so exponentially they have their hands full already.”

Lynch said his 12-member volunteer panel has already put long hours into the project. “We’re looking for a consultant to assist and guide us. Someone with land development experience and a financial and real estate background to help us through the process of reviewing proposals and solidifying arrangements,” he said.

Lynch said the project could cost as much as $40 million, depending on the scope of the development, but the goal is “to do it without encumbering the taxpayers.”

“The city doesn’t want to pay anything,” said Thompson. “Probably, any developer will recoup by either selling or leasing the property,” she said.

Dover’s waterfront had a history as a working port since Dover was first settled in 1623. It was once one of the major ports on the Eastern seaboard, according to local historian Thom Hindle. The city — the seventh-oldest settlement in the United States — grew in the 1800s to have a whopping 40 acres of cotton mills.

“Waterfront businesses flourished because of the mills,” said Hindle, a trustee of the Woodman Institute Museum, a repository of local history. “Large schooners came from all over the world into Dover to bring raw cotton for the mills and bring finished goods out.”

Dover’s calico was world-renowned; another plant made leather belts for machinery, Hindle said.

But a freak spring flood in 1896 caused a disaster dubbed “Dover’s Black Day,” bringing rampaging ice roaring down the river. Nature’s fury tore down buildings and bridges, flooding the mills, starting fires and silting up the river. After that, only small boats and gundalows could navigate the river, Hindle said.

Said Thompson: “Dover was devastated.”

Then came the era of railroads and cars, changing the way goods were transported. The Cocheco Printworks, once world-famous for its calico prints — moved to Lawrence, Mass., in 1913. The waterfront languished; the river suffered ecological abuse. Downstream of Rochester, the Cocheco was used to flush all manner of pollutants, said Hindle. “We used to get everything — dye houses, all kinds of manufacturing — everybody dumped into the river.”

Logistical issues

The city has been debating plans to redevelop its vacant waterfront since the mid-1980s. And studies have long found the land ideally suited for mixed-use development with public access and recreation, according to Lynch.

A charette for the project in the early ‘90s outlining a vision for the site as a mixed-use and public access development using the water has been updated several times, said Myers.

But logistical issues got in the way. The city wastewater treatment plant, public works facilities and a recycling center had to be moved. And the sheer cost and complexity of the project slowed development down, according to Myers.

“It’s one of those things where between infrastructure improvements and roads, the city over the years has invested millions of dollars into buildings and infrastructure to basically have the site without encumbrances,” said Myers.

The city, which moved its wastewater treatment plant and public works facility years ago, is now designing a bridge from Washington Street over the Cocheco to the site to supplement an existing pedestrian bridge and increase public access by cars, said Thompson.

For the first time since the great flood of 1896, the Cocheco River is being dredged to allow large boats back to town. The second phase of the two-year dredging project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, due to start this fall, is expected to make the Cocheco navigable by big boats to Great Bay and the Piscataqua River and the Atlantic.

Amid debate over the location of a parking garage, Thompson said she is organizing a workshop on July 27 to educate the Dover Planning Board on “Tax Increment Financing Districts,” a state program allowing communities to make infrastructure improvements without affecting property taxes.

Lynch, an engineer, said many feel that any parking garage does not belong on the waterfront. “The whole parking garage issue and whether it’s near downtown or on the waterfront is still up in the air,” said Lynch. “We’ve spent way too much time on this to make a parking garage on waterfront property. Plus we already have a downtown. We are very cognizant that we don’t want to create a new downtown. We want to create a transition between the existing downtown and keep that interest there and grow the downtown to the waterfront. So where you position the garage is important.”

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