June 4, 2017

A visionary Worcester under fire

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Chelsea Creekmore / Destination Worcester

While the Canal District and downtown garner most of the attention, it's another Worcester neighborhood that just might be able to shine a light on the city's cloudy economic future.

Cranes left dormant for months have come back to life in the city of Worcester, as the thawing weather has once again opened the city’s streets and neighborhoods to the hum of machinery and smell of molten asphalt.

In each vat poured and block stacked, these alterations to the cityscape mark the partial realization of a vision for Worcester, its businesses and its residents. Yet the underpinnings of any vision emerge from a broad pool of opinions, and therefore are subject to debate.

For one Worcester resident, the standard-bearer for Worcester’s future is the city’s Main South neighborhood.

“I mean, you look at it [and] you have a very dense commercial corridor, you have mixed-use buildings that have storefronts and housing,” said Joyce Mandell, noting the mix of churches, schools and residential buildings in Main South. In short, the community exists as its own organism, with workers living within walking distance of their jobs.

The provocative idea to model the city’s future on a symbol of its troubled past often seemingly neglected in the present by the powers-that-be, arises from this resident of Worcester for over two decades, with a doctorate in sociology from Boston College. Mandell sees the city through her lens as a soldier of Jane Jacobs — the 20th-century New York thought-leader on urban development who believed in dense corridors, short blocks and a “power to the people” ethos, and who inspired Mandell on her yearlong blog Jane Jacobs in the Woo and Jane Week series in May.

Mandell is an enthusiastic and engaging individual; the type of person with whom you find yourself unexpectedly speaking for two hours on a Saturday morning, but not feeling like that time has been lost.

It became clear early on that while Mandell enjoys the city, she positions herself an outsider-in-residency working to challenge an establishment that may have new names behind it, but expresses an ideology that has shaped Worcester for the past half-century.

“We’re going against the tide with the powers-that-be,” the former adjunct-professor at Worcester State University said bluntly.

In this, she points to two issues: First is a belief that since at least the 1960s, Worcester has reacted to the suburbanization of America by turning itself into a suburban city; and second, a subsequent failure in executing a comprehensive vision in correcting this misstep.

This is where earnestness mixes with provocation, as Mandell finds herself simultaneously an incubator for visionary conversation in the city as well as a point of exploration in and of herself.

“We have been giving away the candy store,” Mandell said tightly, referring to sweetened deals for developers who benefit on the backs of prior community investment. “I think there was a desperation of ‘Oh my god, we just have to accept anything.’ ”

And while it is clear to Mandell that the candy store was ransacked beginning in the 1950s and ’60s, the conversation churns with the undercurrent that burglars may remain to this day.

Flickr / Leonardo DaSilva

The shape of downtown changes by the day — but is the social risk worth the financial reward?

Powering this dynamic is a hostility by Mandell to “mega projects that are single use; that are drive, park, enter, and then leave,” pointing to the creation of the DCU Center and continuing with the recent repaving of Major Taylor Boulevard.

In contrast, she highlights the Canal District as a mirror of Jacobs’ multilayered considerations marrying architecture, space and business.

“Their vision of what they are trying to build in the Canal District is really a Jane Jacobs vision,” said Mandell, before flicking off a list of defining traits: It’s “a mix of people living down there, working down there; small businesses; keeping the streets intact — not widening them; [and] having good sidewalk life.”

And while she firmly believes that she is running against the power-flow in her desires around economic rehabilitation, her idealism for creating organic neighborhoods through renovation and reinvestment is a goal shared, articulated and executed by the city, according to District 1 City Councilor Tony Economou.

Speaking on the strength of the South Worcester Industrial Park, Economou — chairman of the Standing Committee on Economic Development — signals the sale of all its parcels as a commitment to creating an environment in which neighborhood residents double as its workforce.

“It gives them [Main South residents] the opportunity to walk to work and take further pride in their neighborhood, because instead of a vacant lot or an abandoned building you have something that’s breathing life back into the community,” said Economou, who announced last month that he will not seek reelection to his Council seat in this fall’s municipal voting.

Accordingly, the development in South Worcester exists within a broader agenda for the city of urban revitalization; one that creates the need to balance growing neighborhoods while forging new ones.

This, on some level, becomes a question of density, in a city that ranks behind both Providence and Boston for persons per square mile. For someone like Mandell, this is the precise information that proves Worcester was developed to buck the urban for the suburban.

And for developers in the city, it means taking an uneven roadmap and finding areas in which growth can be promoted.

“I think in the outlying areas of the city, they are already dense,” said Economou in reference to areas beyond downtown. “It’s [now] just finding the right spot for the right development for any outside developer coming in.”

This was echoed in sentiment by former lieutenant governor and current president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce Timothy P. Murray, with the persistent problem of low-density downtown being resolved partially though what he calls “unprecedented investment” from roughly Madison to Chandler streets and Lincoln Square.

The vision for these individuals would seem to come in concert with Mandell, given that both Murray and Economou put forth the notion of an “18-Hour Day for Downtown.”

“The goal is, let’s get people to come to work, stay here after work, [and] live here to create that 18-hour day.” said Murray, adding that on the list of priorities the cultivation of an actual downtown “neighborhood” hovers above most.

However, the great influx of investment from outside economic forces neglects, in Mandell’s mind, a broader image of community and risks the situation of the city once again opening its candy store for free.

“These projects may bring in taxes, may bring in jobs, but that is not the question. Do these projects promote or hinder active street life or a vibrancy in our neighborhoods? That is the question that we are asking” she said.

Phil Stanziola / Library of Congress

Jane Jacobs

This concern is one largely rooted in Jane Jacobs’ hostility toward the construction of new commercial spaces, rather than the reuse of others. Indeed, Mandell quickly pulls a long passage of Jacobs’ written in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” her magnum opus:

“If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction.… but neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants, and pawn shops go into older buildings.”

Yet, for Economou and Murray, the types of businesses within new developments can begin to diverge from what Jacobs would envision.

First, from an organic development perspective, Economou and Murray point to the restaurant industry within the city, with the former observing that “if you go east of Worcester, there are people going to Worcester instead of Boston to go to dinner. That’s something that materialized on its own.”

Murray himself anecdotally recalls the CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, Bob Luz, pinpointing the Seaport District in Boston and the city of Worcester as two preeminent locations of the New England restaurant scene.

Second, they push back on the sclerotic image of government-business dynamics that Jacobs puts forth in her writings; an image that keeps out new business owners in favor of consolidating space within the hands of a perpetual few.

“I think it is important that they feel welcome,” said Murray, speaking specifically on new immigrant entrepreneurs and pointing to the Chamber of Commerce as an entity that breaks down potential walls that would otherwise exist under Jacobs’ vision. “We work with them with access to capital, [and] support them in trying to grow their businesses.”

The outreach to immigrant communities does not run into controversy for Mandell, who said “we highlight and love the fact that this is a city where immigrants have traditionally been able to make it.”

Mandell finds issue with the market-rate prices accompanying housing units going into the downtown. “We need to talk about who’s going to be left out,” particularly on units for new immigrants, she said. “They need to be affordable, not just market rate, and then you can debate what is affordable.”

This, Mandell asserts, is the best way to preserve the vibrancy of the city and reputation for upward mobility that Worcester holds.

Murray finds a balance, specifically downtown where new retailers and businesses are emerging simultaneously with a real residential base. In short, given that these are occurring together, the calculus on housing in the immediate area is slightly changed.

“[With] market housing … people with discretionary income can support retail,” he said, pointing to momentum and a buildup of nearly 2,000 individuals residing permanently within downtown.

Chelsea Creekmore / Destination Worcester

The Worcester Railers and the DCU Center just might have something to say about Murray and Economou’s 18-hour downtown.

And while this difference on downtown development persists between the two, Mandell and Murray actively promote the notion of creating vibrancy within the city; a city in which this vibrancy occurs from distinct and identifiable neighborhoods.

Murray runs through areas he believes positive development has occurred recently, including reclaimed brownfield sites, SWIP, and the former U.S. Steel site along the Blackstone River.

“There’s going to be a thousand jobs in that building,” said Murray of the long-dormant, sprawling factory building. “That’s going to help the restaurants and stores in Quinsig[amond] Village and Vernon Hill; it’s going to make that area more desirable for the workers to live in, and they can walk to work.”

This reuse keys directly into Mandell’s perception of vibrancy as derived from Jacobs; namely, a retention of old buildings in the midst of new construction. Indeed, the vision put forth by Economou seems to be in-step with Mandell’s vision.

“Go to downtown Worcester on a Sunday morning when no one’s around and just look up, just look at the buildings and how they are built; you don’t see that anymore,” mused Economou in a Mandellian tone. “I think it’s important to keep that feeling of history and architecture part of our community.”

Yet while highlighting the importance of preserving architectural variety in the city, Economou observed that abandoned buildings have deteriorated to an extent that reuse is “far more costly … than to tear them down and start from scratch.”

While understanding pragmatism on building fronts, Mandell still finds pause in a balance-of-sheets equation, arguing in a blog post that the idea that “it’s cheaper to demolish and build new” is “the common flawed rallying cry.”

On discussions concerning infrastructure, Mandell maintains a sense that the city is settling for the status quo, the greatest of which are past patterns.

Specifically on accessibility issues, Mandell sees initiatives put forth by the city as nonexistent or half-hearted. She points directly to the failure to adopt a so-called Complete Streets policy promoting cycling and walking along with driving when revising roadways, and the “missed opportunity” in the repaving of Major Taylor Boulevard.

“I think there were a lot of scratching heads when the DPW repaved the surface this past summer and put the lines in just like it was, so it continues to be a freeway,” Mandell said. She speculated that these and other infrastructure decisions are rooted “with dynamics of how decisions are made in this city.”

The dynamics that cause defections from a Jane Jacobs visions, said Mandell, amplify a distance that exists between City Hall and the city’s residents.

Chelsea Creekmore / Destination Worcester

Crompton Collective is a prime example of the Jane Jacobs ethos.

“The people who actually live in the neighborhoods are the best experts of what needs to happen in the city,” said Mandell. “One of the concerns that everyone has, is the avenues for people to have voice and input early on in the process.”

The belief that individual residents should be directly involved in planning is seen as antithetical for city employees, and portrayed by those working around policy as requisite for due diligence to be accomplished on most projects.

“In the city of Worcester, we have all of these neighborhood meetings that go on every month,” Economou said. “People are always welcome to any public meeting. … They give their input on what is going on in the their neighborhood and it’s welcomed.”

He makes note of the process of operations around Indian Lake, beginning first with a master plan before segueing into a series of neighborhood conversations. This process began, he said, by way of a listening session that informed a conceptual plan, with subsequent meetings being held for fine-tuning to occur.

“It does give people the opportunity to be heard,” Economou said, adding it is “incumbent upon people to take part” in the process. Even still, he said, “you’re not going to satisfy everyone.”

Gaining satisfaction, for Mandell, is not premised in the frequency of community input, but rather the start-time in which this input first occurs.

“We want to have some input at the beginning stages,” she said — particularly highlighting planning and zoning — “when we are just starting to conceptualize what types of products [are planned].”

Rather than a lack of shared vision in the planning stages, it appears that changes in or lethargy around implementing new initiatives is one of pragmatism. This particularly came to light when discussing issues of alternative transportation within the city.

Both Murray and Economou expressed the importance of developments around the Worcester Regional Transit Authority’s bus services; the former highlighting the new hub and funding from Congress, while the latter paused in considering why public transportation has not been fully adopted by city residents.

Such speculation directly mirrors Mandell, who was left with the question of moving from cars to buses. She asked,  “How do you switch, make it so that there is a desire?” Or, more succinctly, “How could buses be cool?”

Beyond the considerations of traditional public transportation, Murray and Economou expressed a great deal of consideration in establishing communal bike-sharing programs through the city that find warm company with Mandell’s vision.

Economou pivoted away from Mandell’s assessment that Major Taylor Boulevard is representative of the city’s streetscape ethos.

“I think as we are going through rehabbing our streets, we are trying to incorporate all of that,” he said, noting his involvement with WalkBike Worcester, “so that people can walk to work, can ride to work, [and] can have a place to lock up their bike.”

Flickr / Tony Webster

Nice Ride bikes in Uptown Minneapolis.

Murray seemed optimistic about bike-sharing programs, pointing to the chamber’s work with colleges and the city on studying communities of a similar size — think Buffalo, New York; or Minneapolis, Minnesota — that also have bike-sharing programs — including a forum last year on feasibility. There has also been research into financing mechanisms that would keep such a system soluble.

“They are usually public-private partnerships … [but] we think that is a piece to the transportation accessibility puzzle,” he said.

This, Murray noted, comes at a time of transformation in the city. “People are seeing construction in ways that they have never seen in the city, iron going up … and it’s not going unnoticed.”

And even if unprecedented, Mandell’s position as an observer and resident leads her to recall when she first entered the city and how investment then ran afoul of its promise.

“I fell in love with the city when I first moved here. It was a honeymoon phase for maybe two years,” noted Mandell.  But with “development mistakes happening on a large level, I retracted a lot because I felt disillusioned.”

Given the success of Jane Week — with more than 375 individuals participating in more than 15 walks and two public forums — it seems unlikely that the impact of Mandell will retract. Yet with the city continuing to grow, it remains to be seen if such disillusionment is based on truly missed opportunities or merely a resistance to consensus.

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