The Worcesternomics of urban revitalization

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A plan that could change the landscape of downtown Worcester for generations is set to be released to the public on Tuesday.

The Downtown Worcester Urban Revitalization Plan, the first public meeting for which occurred 14 months ago, is a bold and emphatic step to renew and reshape the city’s core.

Worcester's downtown skyline, slightly askew

Wikimedia Commons

The profile of Worcester’s downtown landscape could be vastly changed by WRA plans over the next 20 years.

With a total footprint of 118 acres, the $104 million plan by the Worcester Redevelopment Authority includes land from Pearl and Mechanic streets downtown to Lafayette Street in South Worcester.

Included within the boundary is the Midtown Mall and the vacant Wyman-Gordon property at Madison and Lamartine streets. CitySquare, including the former Notre Dame des Canadiens Church, and the Canal District are not within its boundaries.

Letters to property owners and business owners within the extensive area were sent on Thursday. Officials at last Friday’s WRA meeting said the complete plan would be released on the city’s website on Tuesday, April 19, after property and business owners were notified.

[Slides from last Friday’s meeting can be found here.]

This will be the seventh urban renewal project undertaken by the WRA, which is chartered under Mass. General Law Chapter 121B.

As defined by the state, “Urban renewal agencies have broad powers to plan and implement activities needed to address the conditions contributing to the disinvestment that leads to substandard, decadent and blighted open areas. The preparation of an urban renewal plan is necessary for an urban renewal agency to undertake certain actions, including the taking of private property by eminent domain, and the disposition of this property to another private entity for redevelopment.”

The last part, the ability to take private property by eminent domain, gives the WRA enormous power to spur redevelopment when owners of property fail, or are unable, to do so.

According to the Telegram & Gazette, 24 buildings are being targeted for redevelopment but not yet disclosed. In addition, according to Chief Development Officer and WRA CEO Michael E. Traynor, one parcel, the Francis J. McGrath Municipal Parking Lot, next to the Worcester Public Library, has been identified as a candidate for potential transfer for development.

Officials at last Friday’s WRA meeting were quick to point out that a building being a candidate for acquisition does not guarantee it will be redeveloped. “We’re not going to acquire anything we don’t have a plan for,” Traynor said.

And City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. told the Telegram & Gazette, “This is much more strategic than previous urban renewal plans because it specifically targets properties within an area for revitalization, rather than just identifying an entire area for urban renewal. The preference always is for the current landlord to invest in their property or to sell their property. But if they can’t or won’t, we want to try and create an atmosphere where we can either bring in developers to take them to these targeted properties.”

While the buildings on the city’s list of targeted properties have not been made public, reading previous WRA submissions gives us a hint.

In a presentation made at its first public meeting in February 2015, it was noted that the Urban Renewal Study Plan Area differed from the 2012 Theatre District Master Plan by including the block bordered by Main, Pleasant, Chestnut and Pearl streets. This block includes the former Tammany Hall, at 43 Pleasant St., and Fine Arts Cinema.

The same February 2015 presentation (p. 14) refers to the 2012 Theatre District Master Plan and describes the following as “Primary Development Opportunities”:

1. Redevelopment of 20 Franklin Street.
2. New Development and Structured Parking on Former Telegram & Gazette Parking Lot.
3. Renovation and Redevelopment of Midtown Mall as a Creative Economy Incubator.
4. Redevelopment of the Francis J. McGrath Municipal Parking Lot.
5. Renovation/Rehabilitation of the Park Plaza.
6. Renovation/Restructuring of Former Filene’s Building as Student‐Focused Housing.
7. Redevelopment of PASOW Building as Market‐Rate Housing.

In addition to naming the Midtown Mall, the 2012 Theatre District Master Plan describes nearly the entire block on Main Street between Franklin and Federal streets as well as the Performing Arts School of Worcester (PASOW) building on Chatham Street.

The WRA will hold a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. May 5 at the DCU Center, according to officials. The next day the plan will be referred to the City Council, for consideration at its May 10 meeting. The Planning Board will take up the matter on May 18.

If approved by the City Council, final approval is given by the state, which has 60 days to rule on the plan. Last Friday, Traynor said the city and WRA have been in contact throughout the process, so he is hopeful the plan will be approved.

Urban renewal projects are by no means trivial matters; there are only 26 active projects in the state. However, the goal of this or any plan, to jumpstart development and increase the tax base, is a laudable one.

The WRA’s vision in reshaping such a large area brings to mind the phrase “go big or go home.” The residents of Worcester should be heartened that its leaders are bold enough to undertake such an ambitious plan.

Mark A. Henderson is president/publisher and cofounder of Worcester Sun.

3 thoughts on “The Worcesternomics of urban revitalization

  1. Ho Hum. Not Impressed. Sandbox dreamworld thinking just keeps plodding along. Nothing is going to happen without big money and big political muscle. Our transportation infrastructure sucks, like over 100 years old obsolescent; why is the city’s transportation system designed as if there was a vital economic center? We don’t have a functional relationship with our suburbs as if Worcester was not a part of Leicester, Holden, Grafton or Shrewsbury or vice versa. I can understand why Boston can’t develop east, why can’t we develop West? The full potential of Podunk highway was killed years ago, why can’t we have our 128? Urban vitality today is driven by the Internet. Dah. Residential space in San Francisco is valued at $1,000/sf, theatre tickets on Broadway go for $150/seat, how is our Theatre District going to compete with that? This is not bold thinking; just pretty drawings.

  2. Ho Hum. Not Impressed. Sandbox dreamworld thinking just keeps plodding along. Nothing is going to happen without big money and big political muscle. Our transportation infrastructure sucks, like over 100 years old obsolescent; why is the city’s transportation system designed as if there was a vital economic center? We don’t have a functional relationship with our suburbs as if Worcester was not a part of Leicester, Holden, Grafton or Shrewsbury or vice versa. I can understand why Boston can’t develop east, why can’t we develop West? The full potential of Podunk highway was killed years ago, why can’t we have our 128? Urban vitality today is driven by the Internet. Dah. Residential space in San Francisco is valued at $1,000/sf, theatre tickets on Broadway go for $150/seat, how is our Theatre District going to compete with that? This is not bold thinking; just pretty drawings.

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