YOU ONLY GET ONE CHANCE to make a first impression, the adage goes.
And with that in mind, high-level discussions have taken place among city parks officials, the University of New Hampshire-Manchester, civic leaders and others about Gateway Park.
They have determined that if Manchester is going to awe and astonish its visitors, Gateway Park will do it.
Gateway Park? Trust me, you’ve driven by it.
It’s located at the northeast corner of Commercial and Granite streets. If you were headed towards the SNHU Arena from Exit 5, it would be on your left as you pass WMUR.
Right now, Gateway Park is little more than a sloped, splotchy lawn that is so ignored that pedestrians don’t even use it as a shortcut when they park their cars on Bedford Street and walk to the Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, home of New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
But when people like Sarah Jacobs look at it, they see a home run for Manchester.
“It’s really important in setting the tone of what you see in Manchester and what the city is,” said Jacobs, the director of strategic initiatives at UNH-Manchester.
The university has been spending the last 2½ years planning what to do with the park.
The public now gets its chance to see the plans. Jacobs shared blueprints with Mayor Joyce Craig this week. Craig said she likes elements of water and history that are in the design.
“It’s just such a dramatic difference in what exists there today. It’s lovely,” she said.
• No lawn. When I heard UNH-Manchester was involved, I imagined a plush lawn for its 1,000 students to walk barefoot, toss a Frisbee or sunbathe while pondering an anthropology paper. Not at all. “Nothing (about the park) will say university; it’s a gateway to the city,” Jacobs said. That means no lawn for students. In fact, city Parks and Recreation wants no lawn at all, Jacobs said. “Too much grass needs a lot of mowing.”
• Tumbling water. Plans call for a terraced, ampitheater-like sitting area at the center of the park. In a nod to the canals and water power of the Millyard, water will tumble over the center of the terrace. The water will gather in an elongated pool-like structure (remember the Currier reflecting pool?) and then be pumped to the top, to fall again.
• An interactive grounds. Parks used to have playgrounds, and the redesign calls for reuse of an area that used to host long-gone slides and playground equipment. A canopy-like shelter will be built around that ringed area. But don’t call it a playground. “Play” is such a 20th century, non-productive concept. “We want to have interactive elements as part of the park,” Jacobs said. Interactive means things that people can move around and touch, she said. A water wheel is possible.
• Little touches. The Manchester Historic Association will donate old mill gates for the entrance. Low-maintenance bushes will be planted around the ring and adjoining walkways. Game tables will be located along the perimeter, so I guess the college kids will have some reason to visit the park. (Do people, if they play chess anymore, use a board and pieces?)
• Still missing. Jacobs hopes to have a sculpture in the park, and is working with New Hamsphire Institute of Art. “I’m really excited to see thought and care go into a project, creating a space that people will interact (there’s that word again) with,” said Chris Archer, a sculptor and associate dean at New Hampshire Institute of Art. An interactive sculpture would be something to touch, even walk on. One contemporary artist puts swings in her work, he said.
Jacobs said the effort involves Manchester Connects, a interactive group of civic leaders and organizations such as Historic Association Director John Clayton, Chamber of Commerce President Michael Skelton, developer Arthur Sullivan, and UNH-Manchester. Manchester Connects has publicly advocated for amenities such as a river walk and a second foot bridge across the Merrimack River.
It’s obvious that such a group is taking the role of the Amoskeag Mill barons of old.
They fill a purpose. Progress seems delayed, if not doomed, if it must rely on democracy. And the organizers plan to raise donations to transform Gateway Park, which Craig said would make it easy to get passed at City Hall.
Jacobs stressed that city parks and planning officials, UNH Cooperative Extension, Manchester Connects, Millyard business owners and residents of the adjacent rowhouses have all given input into the design. Gateway Park will probably be transformed in phases.
“It’s really important,” she said, “to set the tone of what you see in Manchester and what our city is.”