July 28. 2018 8:45PM

Paul Feely's City Hall: Aldermen debate closing Elm Street to vehicle traffic


Michelle Lima, left, from Derry is with Kathleen Wolfe from Londonderry and the Fan Alliance MeetUp during the annual Hippo de Mayo Taco Challenge held on Elm Street in Manchester on May 3, 2018. The street was closed between Lake Avenue and Bridge Street for six hours that day. Now aldermen are discussing possible temporary or permanent street closures for the future. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER FILE PHOTO)

Discussions on closing a portion of Manchester's "main street" have begun.

Citing the successful closure of a portion of Elm Street to vehicular traffic earlier this year in support of a taco-eating event, city aldermen will explore the possibility of closing Manchester's "main street" more often in the future.

Alderman At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur raised the possibility earlier this year of closing a portion of Elm Street to traffic more often, citing the success of the taco-eating event. On May 3, Elm Street was closed between Lake Avenue and Bridge Street from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. for an annual event that regularly draws 20,000-plus people to the downtown area.

Levasseur said he would like to see Elm Street closed to traffic from West Merrimack Street to Lowell Street, to help attract people to local restaurants and businesses. Levasseur owns Theo's Pizza Restaurant, located at 102 Elm St.

The Aldermanic Committee on Public Safety, Health and Traffic devoted nearly a full hour to the topic at its most recent meeting, fielding comments and suggestions from city officials, business owners and residents.

"Over the years as Elm Street really has grown and developed there have been a lot of concerns with closing Elm Street for races and how that impacts certain businesses more than others and other closures in general," said Ward 3 Alderman Tim Baines, owner and operator of Mint Bistro. "It has also been brought up as a topic that we should be looking to close Elm Street more often. There are varying opinions, from Elm Street should be closed for 365 days a year to it should never be closed. I thought that along with some other aldermen it would be good to give everybody an opportunity to share what works, what doesn't and what your vision might be for the future for Manchester's best street."

Eric Sawyer, chairman for Access Manchester, raised items of concern for the disabled involving street closures.

"When you close Elm Street there is a very long walk from one end to the other," said Sawyer. "You might consider having a trolley or something like that with a minimum fare of like 25 cents. You could get on at one end and get off where you want. Whether you are in a wheelchair or not, Elm Street is a long stretch so think about that when you close it."

"I think it is important to realize that there really is nothing downtown other than restaurants and eateries and bars," said Ward 9 Alderman Barbara Shaw. "There is nothing else for families. Well, there is very little - I can't say nothing. Unless you have something to draw people in like the Taco Tour, which was a family event and brought a lot of people into town where it was worthy of closing the streets ... to just close them once a month and think that tons of people are going to come downtown I don't think is realistic."

"I would beg to differ that there are just restaurants and bars downtown," said Derek Schuster, a planner with the Southern NH Planning Commission and chair of Bike Manchester.

"I am a millennial and I have been here for two years and I am impressed by all of the different things there are within spitting distance from Elm Street or on Elm Street and throughout downtown. I think that there is a lot of positive momentum working in Manchester's favor."

"I was thinking of having an ad-hoc downtown committee that takes this on," said Ward 12 Alderman Keith Hirschmann. "They could come up with a concept and I don't know if you would call it a block party for Elm Street but if you named it something and it had a zing to it ... there has to be a purpose. If you could have three to four dates on the calendar I think it would be a big draw."

"Downtown is booming right now and all of the large apartment complexes have a wait list," said Baines. "Young people are wanting to live in the center. They are looking for more things to do. There is a lot of excitement in the community about this board looking to do things a little bit differently and a little more creative and forward thinking. I think it was a productive conversation and I certainly think we should keep on it and make sure this doesn't just go away."

Look for more discussion on the idea in the weeks ahead.

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Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas has named Kelly O'Brien-Hebert the new transportation coordinator for the school district.

O'Brien-Hebert heads to the administrative offices from her most recent position as administrative assistant for student services at Manchester High School West. Some of her duties in that role included preparing transportation requests and coordinating adjustments.

"My experience in the student services office gave me the opportunity to learn a great deal about the transportation of our students and the challenges that go along with it," said O'Brien-Hebert in a statement. "My desire to grow with the Manchester School District while continuing to provide services for our students made this job a natural choice for me."

The transportation coordinator is responsible for managing all aspects of districtwide school transportation, including routes, schedules and special requests. O'Brien-Hebert will work closely with the Manchester Transportation Authority and Easter Seals Special Transit Services, which provide the school buses for city students, and all of Manchester's schools.

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The City Clerk's office has set up a series of Voter Registration Drives next month, ahead of the state primary election on Sept. 11. Residents can register to vote at the following community events in the city:

Saturday, Aug. 18: We Are One Festival at Veteran's Park on Elm Street, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 25: Greek Fest at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, 111 Island Pond Road, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Sunday, Aug. 26: Friends of Stark Park Summer Concert Series at Stark Park on North River Road, 2 to 4 p.m.

For more information on voter registration, visit the How to Register page at www.manchesternh.gov or call 624-6455.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.