Downtown TIF Committee agrees to reroute Riverwalk

LACONIA — Presented with three alternatives for carrying the downtown riverwalk across the Perley Canal to Beacon Street West, the Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Advisory Board split three-to-two yesterday in favor of recommending to the City Council a route through the residential complex rather than along the riverbank.

Originally Chinburg Builders Inc., the developer of the Beacon Street West Condominiums, planned to build a restaurant on the footprint of a building straddling the canal. The building collapsed under a snow load several years ago. The firm granted the city an easement along the river for the riverwalk, which would be incorporated into the design of the restaurant.

However, Chinburg has since decided to construct a 6,230-square foot building on the site, with seven residential units, two of which will overlook the river. Jeff Spitzer, senior project manager, told the board that the firm concluded that in light of market conditions a residential use of the property would be more economically viable than a commercial use. He said that while public access would be not only compatible but desirable in conjunction with a restaurant, there is a greater need for privacy with a residential building.

Chinburg presented three conceptual plans for the segment of the riverwalk from the completed stretch behind the Beacon Street West Condominiums across the Perley Canal to Beacon Street West. The first would take the riverwalk around the building over the canal to Beacon Street West by a flight of stairs. As this plan would not provide access for those with disabilities, the board rejected it.

The second alternative would take the riverwalk around the building, crossing the Perley Canal with a bridge then turning a corner before joining Beacon Street West. The third route would follow the path of the easement across the front of the proposed building fronting the riverwalk within feet of the windows of two residential units.

Chinburg has present its plan for the site to the Planning Department. This week the technical review committee, consisting of representatives of city departments, expressed its preference for the second alternative. Chinburg has offered to bear the cost of this route.

Board members Warren Clement and Ken Sawyer favored keeping the riverwalk on the river. "If we continue to compromise," Sawyer warned, "we'll wind up with a trail that doesn't follow the water as much as it should." Clement asked, "Are we concerned about not having a riverwalk along the river?"

Attorney Pat Wood said that the easement, although "not black and white," would likely entitle the city to build the riverwalk on the shoreline, but added "we may have the legal right to do it, but is it the right thing to do?" Stressing that Chinburg was willing to pay for construction of an alternate route, he proposed the board recommend the route preferred by the developer.

Kevin Dunleavy, director of Parks and Recreation who chairs the board, said he was "not surprised by Chinburg's position" and cautioned, "If we push, Chinburg may not build at all. They've offered a compromise here," he continued, explaining the firm granted an easement for public access through the Beacon Street West complex and offered to fund construction of the last segment. "I'd like nothing better than to have the riverwalk along the water," he said, "but compromise is necessary."

Chinburg is scheduled to present its plan for the site to the Planning Board on April 1.