MANCHESTER, N.H. – On Tuesday night, the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen deemed a piece of land just south of Parkside Middle School as surplus and then determined that it is in the best interest of the city to sell it for $600,000 to a group seeking to build a new community center on the site named after late philanthropist and businessman Mark Stebbins.
The idea for the community center arose late last year, with the piece of land identified by the group in April. The Board of Mayor and Aldermen Committee on Lands and Buildings recommended the sale in a 4-1 June vote, with Alderman At-Large Joseph Kelly Levasseur voting in opposition and Ward 5 Alderman Anthony Sapienza saying he only tentatively supported the measure.
Tuesday night’s meeting began with a stream of public comment in favor and against the sale, following an hour-long community meeting with neighbors at Parkside.
Proponents of the community center, which is currently expected to be shared equally between the Manchester Boys and Girls Club and Amoskeag Health, said at Parkside and again on Tuesday night they require support from neighbors of the proposed project. However, several neighbors in attendance on Tuesday night felt ignored through the process to this point and that the organizers at the Parkside meeting presented the project as a foregone conclusion and were not truly interested in neighborhood input.
Most opponents of the sale were not opposed to the intentions of the proponents, with several believing that family healthcare and children’s recreational services that would be provided by the proposed center would benefit the city’s West Side.
Still, neighbors speaking in opposition asked why the center couldn’t be placed elsewhere on the West Side, such as unused portions of Manchester West High School. Neighbors also voiced frustration with the perceived rapidity of the sale in comparison to the disposal of other city property that has gone through a request for proposals process such as Hallsville Elementary School, with some asking that the decision be delayed until more information can be provided to avoid unforeseen consequences and any other proposals could be presented.
Perhaps the largest point of opposition from the neighbors came out of fears of the community center’s impact on the community garden located at the site and the lack of comparable parkland nearby as well as traffic impacts and the impact of unsavory elements.
Patrick Binder, a volunteer with the We Heart West community group that spends time cleaning parks on the West Side, said that the park land being discussed was the only one on the West Side without drunken individuals or empty needles or trash.
“(The proponents) already have a vision and a dream and their dreams and visions are beautiful, but (why) when it comes to destroying a city park to make it happen and getting a special rate on the land that wasn’t available to me?,” he said. “You know, I might want to actually build a community center, why I can’t I buy that piece of land for $600,000?”
Neighbors also expressed concern with the expected size of the facility, two floors of 20,000 square feet per floor, not including a parking lot. Project facilitator Jeanine Tousignant told Manchester Ink Link that this figure would make up only 12 percent of the total area of the proposed land parcel.
Tousignant and Project Steering Committee Member Mike Reed also responded to concerns from neighbors regarding the perceived speed and frustration over a lack of information by stating it was unclear whether the land would be viable as an option until the Lands and Buildings vote, making any proposed renderings or blueprints premature.
Proponents of the sale expressed the lack of comparable services currently in place on the West Side that would be offered by the proposed center, especially for West Side residents without reliable transportation. Supporters also noted that the city would not have to contribute any money toward the project, with organizers of the proposed center expecting to raise $17 million that the city would otherwise not be able to obtain specifically for this purpose.
At-Large Board of School Committee Member James O’Connell feared that if the city did not accept this opportunity, it would cause a chilling effect in the future for other philanthropic efforts that seek to help city residents.
“We should be greeting this with open arms, smiling faces and saying that we need you and we thank you for what you’re doing already and we hope you do more in our city,” he said.
Alderman At-Large June Trisiciani made the motion to designate the land as surplus and sell the land to the organizers, noting the reputation of the Manchester Boys and Girls Club in the city as well as the fact that the facility would have to go through the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Adjustments as well as other steps.
The role of the Manchester Boys and Girls Club in the project wooed the support of Ward 10 Alderman Bill Barry and At-Large Alderman Joseph Kelly Levasseur, both of whom were members of the Boys and Girls Club in their youth.
Levasseur said he felt conflicted supporting the proposal given the concerns of the neighbors, but added the strong reputation of Amoskeag Health in addition to the Manchester Boys and Girls Club with his decision.
“The project itself is perfect for the West Side, but imperfect for the neighborhood. In all my years on the Planning Board, it was rare to see this many abutters come out and be upset,” he said. “My hope is (the proponents) will be as gentle as possible and work with the neighbors.”
Aldermen were also pleased with pledges by the proponents not to remove the community garden from the site, with Anthony Sapienza stating that his concerns from the Lands and Buildings Committee were sated after clauses in the Purchase and Sale agreement of the land would revert ownership of the land back to the city if the site is ever used for anything other than non-profit social and health services for youth and families proposed by the facility’s supporters.
Ward 8 Alderman Ed Sapienza was the only voice of direct opposition to the proposal, believing that the process should have gone through a request for proposal.
The motion was approved with a non-unanimous voice vote, with Ward 12 Alderman Erin George Kelly abstaining due to a conflict of interest.