The future won't wait forever

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Last week's planning charrette, held in conjunction with the Northern New England chapter of the American Planning Association's conference here in Manchester, was more than a useful exercise in identifying challenges and opportunities facing Manchester. It was a big step forward for a town that has been working at better understanding its positives and challenges — and charting a path forward that makes sense. We think it's fair to say that Manchester tends to think things through and act deliberately, with the roundabout at Main and Depot streets being the best historic example. There's something to be said for not spending money on the first shiny trinket that comes along. (The "Marge vs. the Monorail" episode of "The Simpsons" is instructive here.) And there's just as much or more to be said for being the town that gets it right — from the roundabout to the Manchester Community Library. No one wants to be the town that got it wrong.But the future isn't going to wait forever.There's the question of how to attract younger professionals to Manchester. That starts with job opportunities that younger adults want, and housing they can afford. Is Manchester ready for restaurants and cafes open past 9 p.m.? Are its property owners willing to be innovative — and incur financial risk — for the sake of creating housing that middle-class incomes can afford? Is it even possible to re-purpose some of Manchester's retail inventory for mixed use or housing? That's not as easy at it looks, charrette consultant Juli Beth Hinds warned; just because a storefront looks like a two-story house on the outside does not prepare it to meet the building code challenges of a second life as a duplex.The charrette also raised questions about how Manchester should greet visitors approaching from Depot Street. A park at the corner of Center Hill Road and Depot Street where the Green Mountain Power substation now sits could offer a significant improvement. The status quo very much resembles a museum exhibit on Nicola Tesla's invention of the polyphase electrical transmission system — oddly fascinating, but not at all pretty.But that's an expensive proposition, and there's a lot of things Manchester could buy for $4 million or less. A safer streetscape around Manchester Elementary Middle School immediately comes to mind. And that naturally leads to discussion of alternatives: Could the right art installation make the substation more invisible to traffic and passers-by? Or would the cost of moving that infrastructure lead to such a significant improvement, as was the case with the roundabout, that it's worth the expense and bother?We're not saying Manchester needs to rush to agreement on these issues and others. Getting it right the first time is a good feeling, even if reaching that decision was a deliberate process. And it's surely more cost-effective to measure twice and cut once. But there's opportunity to be had. So when the results of this charrette come back in a few months as a report, here's hoping it gathers momentum, rather than dust.


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