D5 Candidate Forum notes – September 6 2017

Apologies for not posting these notes earlier.

Here are my notes from the candidate forum for the D5 Candidates (Doug Arbetter, Paul Franco, Matt Wally) last Wednesday; Telegram article here.

I came into the forum not favoring any particular candidate.  After the forum, I found that I would likely vote for one of the candidates over the others.

On the whole, I would have preferred questions more particular to the district and probably a different format as well.  Not to step too much onto a soapbox, but questions about litter (and whether people could just put their recycling in a bin with a lid!) are short-sighted when we could be asking about further reducing our solid waste via curbside compost programs.  Everyone wants to reduce taxes — but when candidates talk about new police sub-stations, better funding for parks, etc., they should be pushed into how, specifically, they will increase the tax base.  Some of that was done (but not very far, at least in my opinion).

However much this forum was lacking, I hope my notes help D5 voters in their decision-making.

There were some technical issues with microphones that broke the flow of various talks a few times, but the candidates handled it pretty well.

Notables in the audience: Wayne Griffin, Donna Colorio, Dianna Biancheria, Moe Bergman, Konnie Lukes

Attendance: pretty good, it was maybe 30-40 people at the start and more like 80-90 towards the end.

IBEW Hall

Welcomed by: Gary Rosen

Moderated by Andy Lacombe of Channel 3

Panelists: Ray Mariano, Hank Stolz

 

Format:

Part One: ask one candidate question, gets 90 seconds, other 2 candidates get to respond

Final 30 minutes – town hall style debate

One minute wrap up for each candidate at the end

 

Opening statements

Arbetter: son of the district, graduate of Doherty, new property owner, came back here after masters from Columbia

1 – seniors can age in place, not priced out of their neighborhood

2 – invest more in public schools, capital infrastructure, public safety, public works

3 – nonprofits should pay their fair share

4 – will be most successful councilor this district has ever seen

 

Franco: great cities have great neighborhoods.  Put neighborhoods first.  New Doherty & South to stand test of time, undeveloped property on Mill and Park.  Successful police patrols, police substations, tax rate that puts homeowners and renters first.  Going waaay over his time…

 

Wally: thanks organizers & fellow candidates.  Issues: hold admin accountable for South High on time & on budget, Doherty approval on time.  Financing for Hadwen master plan, dog park at Boynton.  Streets and sidewalk repair and implementation.

First Question to Franco: Decision made by current City Council in the past two years that you disagree with and why

Franco: Failure to act on Mo Bergman’s request to Rules for exception to Dover Amendment.  In Ward 7, construction of an extended drug rehab facility without any notice or warning.  1010 Pleasant St, facility going in.  Council & citizens have a right to some input on these decisions, construction.

 

Wally: $3 million earmarked for school stabilization to pay down North High, that would have paid down the debt.  Our bond rating is very important.

 

Arbetter: failure to act on mayor’s report on tax reform.  Several initiatives laid out.  Failure to act on one of the recommendations.  They have not advocated for property owners enough.

 

Second Question to Arbetter: describe something positive that you have done for the district as a resident/private citizen.

Arbetter: knocked on hundreds of doors for No on 2 ballot initiative.  He is ready to get people activated for shared values and goals for things that directly impact residents.

Franco: Conservation Commission for 3 years.  Worked with area developers to help wetlands, he learned a lot on the committee, worked with developers, business on the environment.  Strong growing economy in D5.

Wally: everyone has a civic responsibility.  Volunteered for Matthew 25 since college, long-term history of giving back: GWCF board member, trustee associate of Nativity School, lots of other stuff I can’t type.

 

Third Question: when compared to other candidates, why should voters choose you over the others?

Wally: When he thinks about fed gov’t: president unfit for office, congress isn’t passing great policy (members of both parties digging heels in).  he is a democrat, but will be able to compromise for decisions that benefit the city as a whole.  The other candidates are on extremes of their political beliefs.

Arbetter: experience fighting for causes he cares about.  He has knocked on a lot of doors of folks who need to move out of the district.  Businesses can write off property taxes, no TIFs for property owners or residents, destroying neighborhoods.  Part of the character of Worcester is long-term residents.  He has already distributed his number to everyone – accessible.

Franco: tremendous amt of experience.  Father of 6, husband.  Worked for 27+ years with her as a parent, paying their fair share of city taxes.  He has been there, done more, hopes folks will come to him with any issues.

 

Fourth Question: Council is supposed to be non-partisan, has party politics crept in?

Franco: would have hoped this would not be partisan.  Can’t you go to someone for assistance without worrying about party affiliation?  Majority of people out there want less politics, more action.  He’s very good at action: military, work, family, etc.

Arbetter: proud to take position that he takes.  If you think that at the local level, the ideology of your councilor doesn’t matter, you aren’t paying attention to what is going on.  Because he takes positions, doesn’t make him extreme.  Proud Democrat, felt that Wally didn’t take firm positions last time around because he didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  Proud to be running as a Democrat, doesn’t view himself as a radical lefty.  Running to fight for working families, not ashamed for that.

Wally: Partisanship has crept in, a person who has a certain ideology doesn’t necessarily take that off the table.  To Doug’s comment, when he is asked a question directly, he will answer it directly.

 

Fifth Question: Assume that the deal offered in Pawtucket would be the same in Worcester.  Do you support a AAA Red Sox Affiliate in Worcester?

Arbetter: Generally reluctant to see public funding for sports stadiums.  Reluctant to support without seeing any numbers for revenue, are we sure it won’t be a dud.  It’s a matter of if it’s worth $$ in the long term.

Franco: if city’s going to contribute $15 million, then it would be tough talking to waterfront property owners for them to pay through the nose for property tax.  Hard time with public funding for sports teams.  We have Mr Creedon who has the Bravehearts, what would happen to his operation?  The city would likely be in a situation like Hartford with the Patriots.

Wally: under hypothetical numbers, would like to see a bond situation for meals or hotel tax in that district.  Would like to see Creedon/Bravehearts included in some way.

 

Sixth Question: Should Worcester move towards single tax rate?

Wally: when city went to dual tax rate, residents have paid more over the last 25 years.  When he thinks of thriving city, city with thriving business sector.  Great, strong, educated workforce, great location, great transpo network, we cannot compete against surrounding suburbs’ tax rate.  Would probably take 10 years to get to a single tax rate.

Franco: Tax rate does not seem to be hindering downtown development. City should manage assets more effectively, not overburden taxpayers.  Those on lakefront properties are really hurting.  He won a case against appellate tax board, but it was tough.  Nothing that would overburden homeowners and renters.

Arbetter: Goal is to make sure residents aren’t pushed out.  If we want to move towards single tax rate, not for highest residential tax increases.   Evidence-based measures: PILOT to make nonprofits pay their fair share.  Ch 70 funding reform on the state level.  1% sales tax.  Ways to get alternative revenues, need to look at those.

Seventh: Where can City Manager improve?

Arbetter: biggest improvement would be community budgeting, town hall meetings with constituents on what is important to them.  What we are funding is what we value.  Overall he has done an excellent job, grassroots budgeting could be an improvement.

Franco: Look outside door and see the Price Chopper that has been vacant for years, Richardson and Bradley property, Diamond Chevrolet, James Street.  Why can’t the City Manager do wonders up here?  City Manager works for the Council, would be happy to work with him to spearhead those developments.

Wally: Mike O’Brien had rolled out Buy Worcester Now, homeownership rate is 45% (too low), would like it improved.  Wants department heads to live in Worcester.

Eighth Question: Non-profits cannot be made to pay taxes.  Are they not pulling their weight?

Franco: When you hear the term non-profit and the CEO is making $500-1,000,000, but also includes churches.  If we manage spending effectively, we don’t need to tax non-profits, but it’s got to come from somewhere.  We shouldn’t have to be burdened with that.  Manage our budgets effectively.

Arbetter: supports expanding local PILOT program. Going to university and aggressively have them sponsor Recreation Worcester, even have less aggressive conversations with those smaller non-profits.  There are ways the city can have them contribute.

Wally: should always engage with the non-profits, but would shudder to think at what we would look like without colleges.  Majority of non-tax payers are state and city owned in the city.   Should discuss with the state to appropriately value the property and have them pay what they should be paying.

Ninth Q: Mounted police or should those police be working on more traditional patrols?

Franco: mounted police are impressive, privately funded.  Would rather they be used via bike patrols, which are more effective.  More mobile police force, have police substation manned.  The horses aren’t going to come to Webster Square to help us out.  More engaged with community & youth.

Wally: he would rely on the expertise of the department head.  When the mounted police were described, chief said how they would be useful.  He would rely on the chief’s expertise, and supports why he made the decision.

Arbetter: echoes Wally.

 

Tenth Q: pedestrian safety

Arbetter: background is in public health, traffic is a huge part of our public health system.  Need to look at whether crosswalks, stop signs, lights, in the right places.  Smart infrastructure.  Lowering speed limit will not magically make us safer.  Target where we lower the speed limit.

Wally: District 5 should be walkable.  We should look at lowering speed limit on certain residential street.  Need to enforce laws to protect children and pedestrians, visible crosswalks, lighted streets.

Franco: Clover & Heard St residents, he was taking his life into his hands doorknocking there.  Stepped up law enforcement, you have to pay attention when you walk, a lot is common sense.  Increased education.  Complete streets program, Salisbury St, near Worcester State.  Get off the phone, drive carefully.

 

Eleventh Q: What would you do to make D5 and the city safer?  How would you fund?

Wally: too many streets don’t have sidewalks.  Clover, Flagg.  Advocate for increase in sidewalks.  Grow the tax base so that additional revenue could pay for these infrastructure improvements.

Arbetter: privilege of living on the Moreland Expressway.  Walkable sidewalks are needed, making the city walkable should be something we contribute more to.

Franco: Agrees on sidewalk situation.  As a father of 6, many days and afternoons on the ballfields, esp Jesse Burkett and Logan Field.  We have great new parks, but not a comprehensive plan to maintain them once they are build/redone.  Parks need to be properly maintained.

Twelfth Q: does city focus too much on projects in the downtown core?  Do you see value in the density downtown?

Franco: city has done a good job improving downtown, but how long do we need to look at these large vacant properties in the district?  We want to make sure greater emphasis is placed on this district.

Wally: development downtown is not being done to the detriment of the neighborhoods, it increases tax base for us all, improving neighborhoods.  Majority of the activity downtown is from state, federal, private funders.

Arbetter: a lot of value in the investments made downtown, make sure the plans are smart.  No grocery store near there, who’s going to want to live there?  Similar complexes in other cities are above stores.  District needs a bigger focus on undeveloped property.  Property is overpriced, need to be more aggressive with the property owner.  Not opposed to put eminent domain on the table as a last resort.  Coes could be a destination, need to build on Gary’s work.

Thirteenth Q: under what circumstances do you support a tax break to a property owner or business?

Arbetter: welfare to get them to invest in the city.  They need to have a history of paying fair wages, using local organized labor.  Support the workers/residents of this city.  Stands with Councilor Russell. They need to contribute to the city. Proud to have stood with Carpenters Union on Front St.

Franco: TIF, tax breaks, in the toolbox.  Can’t be used haphazardly.  Important to use urban planning expertise.  Would not hand these out willy-nilly, without knowing whether in the city’s/district’s best interest.

Wally: TIFs/DIFs have proven to be good for local econ dev.  TIF/DIFs for existing businesses that are already here.  Enforce hiring certain number of locals, stay in business for a certain amt of time, need to take back tax revenue where appropriate.

 

Town Hall Style – no more timings

Mariano: one current councilor you most identify with

Wally: Economou, constituent services, business background but community focused.

Franco: it’s going to sound like I’m pandering –

Mariano: Don’t pick Rosen, don’t pick Rosen –

Franco: Gary really does care, very approachable.  Standing in Lincoln Square in August, baking out there, he gave him a vote.  Likes his personality.

Arbetter: identifies with King, in terms of values, and Carlson is a fighter for her district.  Mayor Petty has fought with values that are important with him.

Mariano: any City Councilor you wouldn’t want to be like?

Arbetter: There is.  Since this is a political discussion, least identifies ideologically with Councilor Gaffney.

Franco: doesn’t think it’s fair to see who we like and dislike.

Mariano: who you identify with –

Franco: he will defer not to answer.

Wally: will defer.

(UGH – AT LEAST ARBETTER SAID SOMETHING!)

Stolz: is there a time when you would have to vote against the interests of the district in favor of the whole city?

Franco: would shirk responsibility to district if voted that way.  Low tech and high tech constituent services.

There are a lot of people who don’t like new gadgets, proposes constituent office hours, or a town hall meeting like this (not like Gary had a few weeks ago!)

These people need to know that they have someone on the Council fighting for them.  Just like being a lawyer.  Without knowing a specific issue, tough to say.

Arbetter: doesn’t like blanket yes/no questions.  The reason he is running for district is that his passion is constituent work, like when he worked for McGovern’s office.  Passion to do this work.  He ran before the seat was open because he wanted to fight for what was important to him.  He wants people to call him and meet with him.

People elect him because they believe in his ability to represent them – on the front, if something tells him to vote for it, he will.  We all have to give to get in the long run.  Not opposed to giving a little to get something in the long run.

Wally: priority of the district councilor is to protect the district first, would always vote with the district’s needs at heart (not his exact words)

Mariano and some sort of sanctuary city “should the cops ask for papers” question

Franco: It all depends on the law.  Important that we enforce the laws.  We can’t just make it up as we go along.  Whatever law enforcement training the police have.

Wally: WPD has no authority to enforce federal immigration laws.  Doesn’t think it’s appropriate for them to ask about immigration status.  Victims of crime should not hide in the shadows so perpetrator can be caught.

Arbetter: Federal gov’t’s job to enforce immigration laws.  Huge part of public health is for folks to seek help.  If people are afraid to report crime or ask for help, will make our community less safe.  Data shows that communities across the country with similar policies to ours are safer.

 

Mariano, follow up, if WPD had undocumented immigrant in custody without any criminal background, should Worcester contact federal officials and notify them?  (Not required by law)

Franco: concern about undocumented residents is public safety.  If they have someone in custody, obviously concerned about that.

Mariano beats the dead horse.  Don’t we have real issues in this district?

Franco: if you get stopped without a license, you eventually get let off with a fine.

Mariano continues to beat dead horse

Franco: not for someone not a threat to community

 

Stolz: trash and litter problem in Worcester.  Do we have one?  How should we solve it?

Wally: Trash and recycling blowing around.   Recycling bins are an issue, trash bags are not an issue.  Clear plastic bags seemed to be ok, would like to see cost reduced.  Has been problem of dumping in the city, would like to commend the administration for increased cameras.  Best ways to reduce small trash is public transportation.

Franco: Barrels with lids for trash and recycling in other towns.  As long as a trash bin is open, the trash collector will take it.  Cover with lid.

Arbetter: leans towards bin with cover.  Ways to do it without a lot of debate.

Wally: concern with the bin: what about multi-family properties?

 

Mariano: to Arbetter: based on problem property, would get tough with owner and eventually get by eminent domain.  If you call a property owner, you don’t have to get them to pick up the phone.  Where is the money?

Arbetter: A few ideas: discussion with a developer who would like to acquire property.  Go to large non-profit landowners to help acquire the land.

Mariano: and they can do the sidewalk in the front too

 

Mariano to Franco: CM has done wonders downtown, can’t he do them here?  Wonders downtown started more than a decade ago, with Murray, O’Brien doing most of the work.  Now the tree is bearing fruit.  What would you expect the manager to do, knowing that gestation period?

Franco: attended a Columbus Park meeting, CM was perplexed by a similar question. Someone like him can work in a team with CM.  Property on the market for sale, need right buyer.  But how long do we have to wait?

Wally, commenting: code violations for home – good tool for tax and lien, city has a receivership program, who can make any necessary code repairs on the property and then sell the property.  Revitalization plan was approved by state, part of strategic plan, better when there is a strategy, WRA has the only eminent domain power in the city.

 

Stolz: livable city, Stearns Tavern, Notre Dame, history vs. moving on.

 

Arbetter: city has a great character. Always wants to advocate with repurposing, as in the case of Notre Dame.  Pow Wow was great, energizes community, those type of things are important.  Murals on garages (sorry, my wrist is losing steam)

Franco: doesn’t mind the mural, have to take down the Doug sign.  So many concerned citizens doing a lot of work on city parks.  Weeding at veterans memorial.  Newton Square flowers was done by private citizens.  It’s nice to tell people what to do with their property when you don’t have money to do anything yourself.  Loves Mt Carmel and Notre Dame, but money talks.  It’s nice to have these things, done pretty good project like Telegraph Bldg on Park Ave.  Honey Farms near Christ the King church, Honey Farms wants to expand but they can’t tear down the Bhadon building.  Can’t have every house built 200 years ago be preserved.

Wally: you can’t let history get in the way of progress – should be change to history can help progress.  When historic building can have good use, it will help with progress. Fine balance.  Member of Preservation Worcester.  Lengthening of demolition delay order from 6 months to a year a number of years ago was a good thing.

 

I didn’t type the final statements but they were pretty much a rehash of the opening statements.

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FYI Worcester Public Library Lovers

Best beloveds,

I can’t make any comment on this because I serve on the board of the Friends of Worcester Public Library, but I thought you’d like to know that the designer selection for the first floor redesign of the main branch will be on Friday at 2pm.

You might not have realized it had anything to do with the library because, well, it doesn’t say “library” anywhere on there.

But don’t worry, kids, because no one from the library — not a board member or a staff member, certainly not the head librarian — gets a say in the hiring of the designer.

(The funding will be from PILOT.  The decisions on designer will be made by the city.)

Does that motivate you to apply for a seat on the WPL board?  It should.  Contact the city clerk if you’re interested in applying and advocating for patrons and staff.

Worcester Public Library Board Vacancy/ies

The city is currently seeking applicants for the library board to serve out the rest of Carolyn Noah’s term (expires in 2020).  More details here; applications due by this Friday (20th May).

Of note:

Jacob Sanders’s seat on the board is also vacant, but the city is not seeking applicants for his seat.

The vacancy incorrectly states that there is an opening for District 1.  There is an opening for a seat, and it can be filled by someone from any district.

There are currently no seats filled by a District 5 resident, and only one by a District 4 resident.

I urge residents to apply, especially those from D4 and D5.  I urge the City Council to continue to make the board more diverse and especially to give voice to those from D5.

(I will not be applying as I would need to step down from my position on the WPL Friends Board, and I would also like to serve out my term on the Hope Cemetery Commission.)

 

 

WRA Urban Revitalization Plan Notes

Here are my notes from the first hour of the hearing; I could not stay for the whole meeting.

I would like to note that only three members of the WRA board attended this meeting.  I know people have conflicts, but when you are talking about the potential of property taking by eminent domain, it would have been nice to have a full board in attendance.  I’ll link here to any articles I see about the meeting.

Vincent Pedone, Steve Rothschild, Dave Minasian (labor rep appted by CM Augustus), they have a quorum so moving forward

Mike Trainor

Order of Hearing:

Elected officials to speak (Dan Donahue, Mary Keefe, Joe Petty, Gary Rosen, Moe Bergman)

WRA staff and BSC group will give presentation, explanation of finances of plan

Public comment

Timeline, introduced by Pedone: City Council directed CM O’Brien to have WRA to start embarking on urban renewal plan.  Up to $500k for this exercise.  In 2014, bids through RFP for consultant to assist in putting the plan together.  Community Advisory Committee, headed by John Brissette, had 10 meetings over the course of 8 months, received feedback from those in the zone.  City Council passed request to include the Wyman-Gordon site.

Shortly after that, CAC expanded to include some of Southbridge Street.

At end of meeting, will take a vote to move this plan forward.  But this is not the end of the process.

WRA meeting a week from tomorrow (Friday the 13th) to discuss topics brought up at this forum.  Input greatly appreciated.

Ask to limit comments to three minutes, submit written testimony.

Mayor Petty speaks.  Thanks everyone for their hard work.  Half a billion invested in downtown, another step in making this a better city.

Pedone continues to talk about economic growth in the city.  This plan will tie it all together.  They are completely open to making revisions to the plan.

CM Augustus, opening comments: thanks everyone for their time and effort.  Some of us who live here do not appreciate the scale of changes that have happened over the past 20 and esp past 10 years.  Lot of property owners identified who are good people who care about the city but may not be able to afford changes.  Eminent domain is a scary thought, but isn’t the first goal of this plan.  Really is the last resort.  Brings attention to these properties.

Augustus, continued: Advocates people ratting on their neighbors who have property in disrepair.  Downtown analogous to that situation.

(My older son notes that these comments have now lasted longer than three minutes.)

Rep Keefe: Excited to hear what folks have in mind tonight.  When we talk about urban renewal, a bit of PTSD.  Wants to hear more about the public process for feedback.  This is transformational – less about destruction and more about renovation and investment.

Pedone: phrase urban renewal is scary, so (1) this authority has gone out of its way to make sure everything is public, (2) this space overlooks successful urban renewal space.  (By this he means the hospital.)

Gary declines to speak: “This is the public’s night.”

Mike Trainor now begins to go through a PowerPoint overview of the plan, Heather Gould and Jef Fasser (BSC) will both speak later.

Why Urban Revitalization?

To be a stronger, more vibrant downtown.  Economic engine for the whole region.  Strategy is to approach properties where private sector has not invested in them.  “These are the tough ones.”  24 properties plus first floor of Denholm’s.

Code violations, out of date code, brownfields vacant for 20 years, upper floors vacant, obsolete buildings private sector not willing to invest in.  Bring confidence to existing property owners, those who want to invest in Worcester.

Urban Renewal Plan by law has a 20 year shelf life.

MedCity: taxes: $27,000 in 1993, $5million in 2016.  What we spent and what has been returned has been a 30% return on investment

Introduces MGL about urban renewal.  Currently 26 active, approved plans in the Commonwealth, 18 of those are in Gateway Cities.

One active urban renewal plan in Worcester is Union Station.  They were able to use land in that area to the Homewood Suites hotel.

Heather Gould of Economic Development to discuss the DIF District.

This project is a great example of successful public/private urban renewal partnership.   Two different property owners, two different developers (Mercantile Center, City Square proper).  City has spent $90 mill for demo of mall, street network, site prep, rekindling the urban fabric that once existed.  550 space underground parking garage, will make parking more accessible.  Approximately $300 million in both projects in private investments.  Up to 370 units of market rate housing, AC Marriott hotel.

They are basing this on the Theater District Master Plan.

Transformative Development Initiative from MassDevelopment.  Worcester was chosen – focus is on Theater District.  Aim is to make the district a bustling hub of activity, where people want to go after work.  This is its own initiative but fits into Theater District Master Plan.

 

Jef Fasser of BSC Group – walkthrough of the plan.

Looking at improving gateways into the downtown, aesthetics, building stock.

12 & 22 Front Street (Mid Town Mall).  There are a lot of small businesses in that building, they don’t want to chase small businesses out.

17 Pleasant Street (former Olympia Theater).  It would be a challenge to turn around a large space like the theater and pay back the investment needed to take.  Recommendation is to demo.

66 Franklin Street, Paris Cinema.  Boarded up, investment is not really likely.

517-521 Main Street (Metro PCS, Great Wall).  Upper levels have not been used in years.  Façade improvements also needed.

484 Main Street (Denholm Building).  Upper levels are well-utilized.  All are individual condominiums; much of the bottom floor tenants have not been successful.

518 Main Street (empty parking lot next to Denholm; picture is pre-mural).

538 Main Street (Money Stop).  Upper levels not used in years.  Would require major investment to turn that around. New restaurant, that’s the kind of thing we want to encourage.

35 Portland Street (parking lots behind Hanover).  Partner with other property owners to put in garage.

McGrath Parking Lot, Salem Street: lot may provide development opportunity in the future.  No immediate action.

Wyman Gordon Parcels at Gold Street.

149 Washington Street.  Used as flea market on occasion.

Wyman Gordon, small Lamartine parcels.  Begins to transition to Green Island neighborhood.

300 Southbridge Street, Miss Worcester Diner and large building (beautiful but in tough shape).

4 Quinsigamond Ave (flea market, tattoo).

346 Southbridge Street (Hurricane Betty’s)

I’ve found that “prime development area” = “evict longtime taxpayers”

City has grant to pay for improvements on Quinsig Ave and Main Street.  They want to tie all this in to plans.

Pedestrian level improvements – sidewalks, lighting, safety, make the alleyways a place for pedestrians to walk.

Total project cost: $104 million.  Of this, $82 million would be needed.  They have identified potential funding sources.

Public comment period:

Recognizes Konnie Lukes and Sarai Rivera

John Brissette: asks the others who served to stand.  Process started in Fall 2014 comprised of a group of stakeholders.  Public forum at Crompton Collective in Feb 2015.  Another public hearing at City Hall.  Talked a lot about small businesses.

Jill Dagilis: they worked really hard to listen.  She is a city resident and property owner, WCAC executive director.  She is a huge fan of Worcester.  Believes this is a good plan, vibrant development and revitalization is good for all of us.

Frank Carroll: congratulates CM on his explanation of what is going on with redevelopment program.  Glad Tim Murray was mentioned as well.  Has been in business on Main Street for 28 years.  (He reads some remarks which had been discouraged.  Hey, some of us need notes!)  He remembers the opposition to this building (DCU Center).  We need private enterprise in order to keep our taxes down.

Non-profits don’t pay taxes, private enterprise pays taxes. Discusses how out-of-town property owners need to do more than just collect rent.  Other property owners should step up to the plate and not expect the city government to pay for the improvements.

Tim Murray of the Chamber of Commerce: if every property owner were like Frank Carroll, we wouldn’t need to be here.

Gateway Park, Shrewsbury St, Canal District, all public/private partnerships, all focused on mixed use.

Chronic problem properties for a long time have been targeted by this plan.

If we are going to leverage the public and private partnerships, we need to address these properties.  About engaging property owners, taking is a last resort.  Put primacy on rehabilitation.

Troy Siebels: success of his buildings is dependent on his plan.  Concerned that it does not go far enough.  There are other properties that might require more work, plan just addresses low-hanging fruit.  Asked if there are other properties: yes, in the immediate 500 block, the Denholm Building first floor most critical.

Deb Packard: is this a static plan?  Can areas/buildings be added?  Preservation Worcester understands that not every building can or should be saved.  They are concerned about demolishing two historical theaters in the downtown (Capitol/Paris Cinema: has heard it’s in bad shape)

Packard, continued: in terms of demolition delay ordinance, is that still in place for a year?

Very concerned about Olympia Theater. She was in the theater less than a month ago.  She is reminded of what people said about the Hanover Theater ten years ago.

Putting her library hat, Pres of the Library Board.  They are very enthusiastic about opening the front door.  However, parking is a concern, patrons have children, strollers, elderly, we might lose them, important downtown institution.

Trainor: idea of any development is longterm thought process.  Wants to increase parking availability. They will not leave the library with less parking.

 

TBUG Weed-Up – Saturday May 14

For many years, our friend Cathy Walsh was the ringleader of the Turtle Boy Urban Gardners, which weeded, planted, and maintained the oval area around the Burnside Fountain.

In the past couple of years, the Common, including the area around the fountain, have experienced a transformation.

We are now ready to continue Cathy’s work — and we would love for you to join us!

On Saturday, May 14, beginning at 10am, we will be weeding and planting the new, larger planting area around the Turtle Boy.

You can help by:

  • Coming that day with your gardening gloves and comfortable shoes [FB event]
  • Coming on subsequent days with large buckets of water to make sure the new plants get plenty of nourishment!
  • Sharing this event with others who might be interested

Learning from our Mistakes

Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading — the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the “gourmet mansardic” junk-food joints, the Orwellian office “parks” featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain-gang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call “growth.”

James Howard Kunstler, “The Geography of Nowhere”

Before I continue on an extended rant about Worcester and downtown development, I’d like to step back and talk about how and why our downtown got to be what is it today.  Some of you aren’t originally from Worcester, and the background might be helpful even for those who are.

Post-WWII Urban Renewal

We don’t often think of Worcester being on the bleeding edge of anything, but in the late 1950s through early 1970s, Worcester was at the forefront of the post-World War II wave of urban renewal.

At a very high level, urban renewal as Worcester saw it consisted of a reaction to fears that downtown Worcester was dying, and that the only way to save it was to make it as suburban as possible.  The car was king, and much of the development was geared towards the convenience of those arriving by car.

For those like me, born after the mall was installed, it’s nearly impossible to imagine what downtown Worcester was like.  There was no I-290 bisecting the city and the downtown.  Traffic could flow from Kelley Square to Madison Street.  There was dense housing and businesses all the way from Main Street right up to Union Station.  There were factory buildings where the hospital now sits.  There was no brutalist post office or police station.  Worcester was built at a human scale.

While the Galleria mall is usually what first comes to mind when thinking about Worcester’s post-war urban renewal, it was actually the centerpiece of a much larger project that transformed the downtown.

Before the Galleria was even a twinkle in Francis McGrath’s eye, the next two blocks over were being transformed in the first round of a major downtown project.

The Worcester Public Library had occupied a building at the corner of Pearl and Elm Streets (now the location of the Pearl-Elm Municipal Garage).  By the 1950s, the building was too small for the community’s needs and the board of directors requested that a new library building be constructed in the Salem Square Redevelopment Project, which also included the YWCA and the McGrath Municipal Parking Lot.

The Salem Square Redevelopment Project was able to accomplish many things: two major anchor sites in the WPL and YWCA; hundreds of parking spots in the McGrath lot; freeing up space at Pearl-Elm for a multistory parking garage.

At the same time, Madison Place was being constructed, with a hotel at one end and a large, suburban-style plaza with plenty of parking for customers at the other.

As you can see, development centered on the needs of cars to the exclusion of beauty and with little consideration for pedestrians.  Development was also predicated on a myth that these areas were “blighted” and that tearing down blocks of businesses, apartments, shops, and churches would bring about economic renewal.

The “progress” continued in full force: the large glass tower (with parking garage); the reflecting pool on the Common (with under-Common parking, which I suppose was an improvement on the previous incarnation, which saw a small parking lot next to City Hall); the fortress-like police station; the destruction of whole neighborhoods in the wake of I-290; McGrath and Worcester Center Boulevards, perfect for moving vehicles and little else; culminating in the Worcester Galleria, with the Largest Parking Garage in the World!

By the time the Galleria was constructed, the tide of urban planning ideas was turning back to livable, walkable urban centers (like the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville).  But Worcester had invested too much in a bigger-is-better, car-driven vision — and on it continued: to the Centrum; to Medical City; to more parking garages and surface lots.

But things are different this time!

It’s difficult for many longtime Worcesterites to trust that Worcester Urban Renewal 2.0 will correct the wrongs of the past 50 years.

Some of the damage is long term: I-290 is here to stay, and the DCU Center and St. Vincent’s Hospital aren’t likely to move.

But, even ignoring the things we can’t change, we don’t usually leverage what we can change into the best and highest use of land and existing buildings.

When we continue to see buildings like the St. V’s Cancer Center and the Unum Building — both with minimal interest for pedestrians, adding nothing to street-level activity — constructed in key downtown lots, it gives no confidence that future construction will be any better.

The WRA has not had a winning track record when it comes to downtown Worcester.  It was the key driver of the destruction of the blocks east of City Hall, the demolition of neighborhoods for I-290, and Medical City (now St. Vincent’s Hospital). While it can be credited with the successful renovation of Union Station, that station still lacks a convenient place for passenger pick-up and drop-off nearly 20 years after its rehab, and has only recently become the intermodal hub it was intended to be.

When the destruction of downtown was in full swing, residents of Worcester were assured that the Galleria would bring in loads of visitors who would be more than willing to exit the mall to shop at existing downtown businesses.  As we know too well, that didn’t happen and the mall was a death knell for many businesses that had escaped the earlier wrecking ball.  Then as now, we are unwilling to believe that businesses are thriving in an obviously “blighted” area and to learn from their successes.

I do not wish to lay all of the blame on the WRA, as there is plenty to go around.

Worcester’s insularity — an unwillingness to trust outsiders who actually know what they are talking about, and the promotion of the in-crowd to the exclusion of the deserving — is a tradition we proudly continue.

We are more than willing to trust certain connected property owners over others who aren’t in the club.

That’s why the Mid Town Mall is continually castigated, while the Krock-owned properties — including the obscene surface lot across the street from the courthouse — mostly escape scrutiny.

That’s why the Paris Cinema building has been boarded up for years.  It’s now owned by the same company that covered up a really interesting building and turned it into the beige Portland Street Lofts.  They’re going to tear the Paris Cinema down.  They might replace it with a small grassy area with pop-up restaurant offerings.  But first — they’re going to turn it into a parking lot!  ON THE GRID!

Nobody wakes up in the morning and asks themselves how badly they can screw up downtown Worcester.

But our leaders keep partnering with organizations like the WBDC, which specializes in suburban office parks, street-level-retail-free downtown buildings, and, come hell or high water, hockey complexes in dense urban areas.

We’ve lost so much that we can never get back.  We’ve lost big brick factory buildings that could have served as loft, office, or retail space.  We’ve replaced structures made for people with structures made for cars.  We cannot lose another piece of our heritage.  We can’t afford another misstep.

When we erect a building that’s inappropriate for a site, that space is lost to us for decades.

When we demolish a downtown building, we could be knocking out a tooth that can’t be Lumineered back into existence.

The developments in CitySquare to date don’t reflect an understanding of where we came from and don’t inspire confidence about where we’re going.

It’s not too late to look back at our mistakes and correct what we can, but if citizens fail to get involved, the “renewal” crowd will blindly visit us with new and improved mistakes with which we’ll live for decades.

Your homework for next time:

Read the WRA’s Downtown Urban Revitalization Plan (and Nick K’s column).

You can provide comments at the public meeting on Thursday, May 5 at 5:30pm at the DCU Center at the Showcase corner (corner of McGrath and MLK).

I’ll write another post before that meeting with my thoughts on the plan.

Friends of Worcester Public Library book sale this weekend

On Friday, April 29, and Saturday, April 30, from 10am-4pm in the Saxe Room at the main branch of Worcester Public Library, the Friends of WPL will hold our Spring book sale.

When you pay (incredibly low) yearly dues to the Friends, or make book donations, or purchase from the Food for Thought Cafe and Bookstore, or buy bags full of books at our book sales, you support the Friends’ many programs, including museum passes and the Give and Take bookcase at Union Station.

So come on down and buy a lot of books!