MANCHESTER, NH – It’s been two years in the making but it’s finally move-in day at the Factory on Willow, something like Manchester has never seen before. Now open for living and creating, 61 units that double as workspace tucked inside a modern open-concept “smart-building” interior wrapped in a renovated 1880 stately brick factory.
Turning the defunct Cohas Shoe manufacturing plant into apartments where tenants are invited to work, live, create and connect has been no small feat for Liz Hitchcock and her team at Orbit Group, pushing the limits of what already exists with this project by planting the seeds of Manchester’s future all around it.
“When you become a resident of the Factory you’ll be a central piece of a community that will grow as new concepts are tested and additional amenities and businesses are added in the commercial mixed-use space located in and around the building,” says Hitchcock. Her vision includes the development of the adjoining property, which will be an amphitheater, along with a trail that leads to the ballpark next to the river. Also in the works, a cafe, an incubator retail space, a distillery, and food truck hall for shopping, events and live music.
The Factory on Willow is poised to become the center of its own microcosmic incubator for development in the south end of the city, says Mariana Beer, who is property manager and “community creator” – and also a fitting ambassador for what a project like this means to a community like ours.
She is herself a creative spirit, a thinker and a doer who totally gets the transformative power of this kind of project for a community ready for its next iteration. And the timing couldn’t be more right, says Beer. The past year has forced everyone to rethink how they work, how they live, and how they find a way to balance it all.
“The paradigm of what office work looks like has shifted for many of us. And it’s that type of long-term vision and investment in a community that piqued my interest,” Beer says.
“The building is beautiful, the windows are fantastic, the structure and the bones of the building – it’s unlike any other property I’ve seen around here,” Beer says. “It was refreshing to see Liz believe in the possibility of this. She isn’t a typical developer, she’s an investor – and what she’s investing in is a vision for what this community can be.”
Conceptually it’s not unlike Western Avenue in Lowell, Mass., says Beer, or other artist enclaves that attract creators and innovators to live and work under one big roof. Residents of the Factory are invited to do what they do in an atmosphere that is conducive to collaboration.
Billed as luxury studio apartments, the units are fully ADA-compliant and range in size from 472- to 770-square-feet – Entrepreneur Suites, Innovator Pads and Artist’s Cribs. They are priced from $1,400-$2,050 per month and include on-site parking, a fitness center, heat and hot water, a community garden plot, walk-out patio access, high-speed WiFi, and it’s pet friendly – with a fenced green space for Spot to stretch his legs.
There will also be Airbnb units for short- or long-term lease depending on what brings you to the city.
The demographic they are targeting is anyone who wants a studio apartment, Beer says.
“If you are an up-and-coming writer or photographer and you want to focus on that craft, or a fashion designer thinking about starting up your business and selling online, you can plug in your sewing machine and live here,” Beer says. “Our target is anyone who wants to feed that creative energy. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, just that you want to be part of a community. We’re redefining what the studio apartment is and who it’s supposed to be for. It’s a lifestyle.”
Transforming the festering 90,000-square-foot factory into something fresh and vibrant means a lot to a city like Manchester, which has already seen how the refurbished millyard has been repurposed into schools, restaurants, offices and businesses.
Such projects promote urban revitalization and foster the growth of the arts and tech communities in Manchester, says Service Credit Union Assistant Vice President of Business Services, David Weed.
“The Factory on Willow sets many firsts for adaptive reuse of a historic mill building and is a fantastic community-centered project,” Weed says, something that also appeals to Brian Pratt of Manchester-based engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill and board member of Plan NH, a non-profit focused on building sustainable communities.
“It is a great feeling to be able to contribute to a creative, adaptive reuse project like The Factory on Willow that celebrates and honors the heritage of Manchester. We were proud to help in many facets of the project, including visioning, survey, traffic, site design, and permitting,” Pratt says. “Projects like these highlight the redevelopment potential of downtown Manchester, and the commitment to establishing a more walkable, connected community.”
Beyond improving the optics of Willow Street and the future footprint of the site, renovating the old factory also went a long way toward mitigating the preexisting environmental impact of the languishing building.
“The former shoe factory has been one of New Hampshire’s oldest, actively managed contaminated sites. For nearly 50 years, soil and groundwater at the property has been negatively impacted from heating oil that leaked during the 1970s from a large underground storage tank,” says Russ Lagueux, of NH Department of Environmental Services. Site redevelopment gave the state access to the previous inaccessible oil contamination there.
But the main attraction will be building an art-centric community, including nurturing the next generation of creators. For example, Beer says there will be an Artist in Residency opportunity for recently graduated or emerging artists, an arrangement made possible with an assist from the NH Business Committee for the Arts, providing three-months rent-free space to create.
A walk-through of the fourth-floor apartments showcases the variety of floor plans. High ceilings and wood beams evoke a spacious warmth. Oversized windows allow for abundant light no matter which way the unit is oriented. Walls throughout the building will be covered in artwork. Original wooden floors remind you of all that this building once was; Beer reminds you of all that it will be.
“I can see themed events, like a breakfast party that includes Saturday-morning cartoons and a breakfast bar of all your favorite cereals,” says Beer, smiling as she revels in the snap, crackle and pop of another big idea.
“People can come and eat, browse, and shop all the art and creations that are made right here,” she says. “People have started to forget that we’re going to hang out again, and we’re going to need an outdoor space for music, for food trucks, for our dogs to hang out, and it’s short-sighted not to prepare for that.”