Manchester's stillborn college campus

/ Thursday, October 20, 2011 /

In the northwest corner of Manchester lies a large plot of undeveloped land, the last barren parcel in the city that isn't a swamp or park. The Hackethill area is a mix of woodlands and protected wetlands that is a beautiful piece of space, and meandering through it are long abandoned roads, parking lots and sewer systems of a stillborn project that has spanned almost 40 years now.

In the 1960s, the University of New Hampshire opened a new branch of the University called Merrimack Valley College off of Hackethill Road. A large building, called French Hall, was constructed with all the necessary classrooms and administration offices. The college had minor success and a few years later the 830 acres of land behind French Hall were purchased with the idea of building a true campus in Manchester.

A map of the future development.
The development as it currently looks via Google Maps.
The development was slow moving, as things with universities tend to be, and eventually in the early 80s, a road was paved leading into the property. Parking lots were built, sewer lines laid and electricity was even run through out the entire development, powering only the street lamps that pepper the narrow roads and parking areas. In 1986, UNH Manchester opened a branch in the millyard and there were classes both on the "hill" and the "mill," respectively. In 1998, the university opted to consolidate their two Manchester campuses and sold back the land and French Hall to the city. French Hall has since been sold to the tech company, JPSA Laser. Since the late 90s, the campus that never was has sat deteriorating against the encroaching forest and elements.

The largest of the abandoned parking lots.

One of the many broken street lamps that fleck the parking lots and roads.
Weeds, grass and full grown trees sprout from every crevice in the pavement. Mold and moss cover sidewalks that never saw the hurried footfalls of students running to their next class. Fire hydrants sit rusting and storm drains choking with leaves. The sights are a little eerie, almost post-apocalyptic, but the land itself is beautiful. It's a reminder that in only a few short decades the Earth can easily take back what we have built. I couldn't imagine what the place might look like 100 years from now if no one decided to develop it. The city could make it a free form park and archeologists could study the deterioration of modern infrastructures and see how our civilization might survive a millennium.

A barely visible piece of sidewalk.

Sadly, the land was too valuable for such an endeavor and the city sold it to Danais Realty earlier this year for $2.8 million, which plans to develop it as the Northwest Business Park at Hackett Hill. It should be noted that there is a small group of people protesting the development, as several areas of the land are protected nature preserves. You can read more about their effort here.

More photos after the jump.

Danais Realty current development plan.


Anonymous on: October 28, 2011 at 1:29 PM said...

I knew the story of French Hall and the consolidation of UNH in the Millyard, and I'd heard of the recent sale of the land. But the history and the fact that all that infrastructure was built up there was news to me, and helps explain why the City was so eager to sell it--aside from the tax structure and state budget cuts making the city perpetually cashed-strapped.

The City should have followed UNH's lead and abandoned the land. Much of it is already protected, with a rare cedar swamp owned by the Nature Conservancy I believe, and the rest of the land could have been preserved as a unique park.

My understanding of the sale is that the land was promoted as a site for an R&D park, which is exactly the sort of thing that should have been targeted for areas in need of urban restoration in the city center. The Rite-Aid plaza and parking lots of the West Side near CMC or the old freight yards and area around the Rivers Edge would be excellent areas for R&D professionals to work, where they could be mixed with urban housing and retail to revitalize city center neighborhoods.

An office park on the edge of town like Hackett Hill is hardly the best use for that land, and it makes it less likely that already developed and underutilized land in the city center will be redeveloped and repurposed. That's a shame not only because the sort of office park that will be built are particularly bland places to work, but because of how much potential already exists in already developed areas of the city.

Office parks and strip malls should be left to the suburbs--Manchester is not Hooksett or Londonderry or Bedford. City leaders and planners should start treating Manchester like the city it is, and promote urban development in the city center, not suburban sprawl at the fringe.

{ Dan Brian } on: October 28, 2011 at 2:09 PM said...

You've echoed my sentiments exactly. It's a beautiful piece of land —even with the deteriorating infrastructure— and it's a shame to see it end up as another insipid business park. The press release actually says, “Northwest Business Park will be the 2011 version of what East Industrial Park Drive was for the City 40 years ago." and my first reaction was, "god, I hope not."

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