Much Ado About Something

Today’s Telegram and Gazette has an article about the WBDC’s plans for the McGrath lot (“Hockey rink plan no sure shot”, 9/30/2012).

You may recall that I wrote about their plans in June.  Since then, there’s been a lack of coverage (both in other media and on this blog) about the McGrath parking lot.

I’d asked reader feedback on what you’d like in a library district.

I didn’t ignore that feedback.

For the past few months, I’ve been working with friends, including Steve Mita, to work on an alternative plan for the “library district”, one that would provide space for a hockey complex if that’s what’s needed.  We think this plan incorporates what folks would like to see.  We hope it’s something that will — at minimum — provide a good counterpoint to the WBDC’s plans and — at maximum — be something we could base a library district on.

I’d like to expand on a few ideas touched upon in the article.

Why are we worrying about this now?

As I said, since June, I’ve been trying to pursue alternative plans to what the WBDC proposed.

As far as I know, they are moving forward with their plans.  Since they did not hear enough of a negative response at June’s library board meeting, I think they are operating under the assumption that the hockey arena plan is fine to proceed with.

Doing nothing in the McGrath Lot is not an option.

A parking lot is not the ideal use of that space.

We cannot simply say to the WBDC that we do not like the hockey arena idea, or that we just want to keep our parking lot.  We need to have a real plan with real goals for that space.

If we do not move on this soon, if we cannot get the library board to start to look at –and preferably endorse — another, better idea in the next month or two, the WBDC will move forward and we will have a larger fight on our hands.

Kevin Dowd, the chair of the library board, has said that he doesn’t “feel that the plan as it’s developing is a threat to the library.”  That’s right, a plan that takes away all the library parking, that puts a flyover in the middle of downtown to get people off the street, and that puts in a big white behemoth where we need pedestrian activity, is not a threat to the library.  It’s a threat to the health of the whole downtown.

Why hockey arenas won’t work in this space

Councilor Germain expresses his support for the hockey arenas.  Because he loves hockey.  That’s ok — I support the library because I love reading.  But we can’t base our urban planning solely on our personal passions.  The plans have to make sense in the context of existing structures and also have to further our goals for the neighborhood.

Hockey arenas need surface parking close by.  In the plans I saw, the parking garages would be a couple of blocks away from the arenas.  That doesn’t make sense if you’re a college student with a heavy bag of equipment, and it doesn’t make sense if you’re a hockey mom with an eight-year-old to drop off at a rink at 6am.

We need structures that will encourage pedestrian activity, we need to integrate the library back into the downtown, and we need to encourage more residential and convenience retail in the neighborhood.

Hockey arenas won’t do any of this, and WBDC’s proposal for “a pedestrian walkway over Salem Street to a four-story parking garage behind The Hanover Theatre” would further cut that side off from the rest of the downtown.

How exactly would an overpass for pedestrians do anything to make people interact with downtown on a street level, where it is desperately needed?

I don’t have a problem with more hockey arenas, but I do have a problem with them in that particular site.

Councilor Germain says that “I don’t think a lot of people in City Hall have a lot of experience with hockey and youth hockey”, but it doesn’t sound as if he understands one of the fundamental needs for a hockey arena is parking close by.

If we need hockey arenas, and if we need them close to downtown, Steve and I recommend they be built at the former Wyman-Gordon property.

I have been told that the Wyman-Gordon property, which is currently listed at $1 million an acre (with three acres needed for this sort of hockey complex), is too expensive for this project.  But if the project is supposed to cost $20 million, then why can’t the land portion of the project cost roughly 10%?  And wouldn’t a closer connection to the Canal District be exactly what is needed for college hockey players and observers?

And if you think that the area of Library Lane is clogged with people double-parking and idling now, just wait until there are hockey arenas for people dropping off and picking up kids.

So — what’s better?

For those of you old enough to remember, the Salem Square project — the project that brought us the “new” main branch of the library, the YWCA, the McGrath Parking Lot, and some of McGrath Boulevard — was the first major urban renewal project in the city.

You might not be familiar with the term “urban renewal“, but you’re likely familiar with the biggest urban renewal project in the city: the Worcester Center Galleria.

Urban renewal as we experienced it in Worcester meant vast land takings in the center of the city, replacing a dense urban fabric with something we’d now recognize as suburban, and designing a city center around car access (easy on/off from 290, and large, multi-lane boulevards) rather than pedestrians or public transportation.

What we’re trying to do now with CitySquare (supposedly) is to reverse the negative aspects of urban renewal and bring back a dense, multi-use city center.  (We will leave aside whether CitySquare is actually doing that; that’s an argument for another day.)

Similarly, what we would want to see in the blocks between the library and the Hanover Theatre is a commitment to a dense urban fabric (residential, retail, offices and/or labs) and a design that will get us there.

So, in Steve’s plan, we put a small parking garage on the McGrath Boulevard side of the current McGrath lot, and a four-story building on the Salem Street side, a building with residential or office on top, and retail and the senior center at street level.

We also have plans for the development of the rest of the neighborhood.  We hope to show them to the library board soon.

But if we put in a large hockey arena complex with a pedestrian flyover to parking, that’s no different than a dedicated exit from 290 into a Galleria garage.  It will not improve pedestrian activity at the street level, where we need it most.

Retail and Residential

When the library board was presented with the WBDC’s plan, much of the presentation focused on how this area of downtown needs more retail and more residential.

This is absolutely correct.

I think the WBDC and I can agree on that, but (insofar as their plans for the hockey arenas go) we differ on how to achieve more retail/residential.

The library gets half a million visitors a year.  (Compare that to the Hanover, which gets about 170,000 a year.)  We need to figure out ways to get those people to spend more time downtown.

I think Steve’s plan will get us to knit the library back into the urban fabric of downtown.

I think we also need to think about the way the entrances to the library affect the direction people go in (that is, there is no entrance/exit to the Common) and figure out how to make this an urban library building.

Other things to keep in mind

Remember, if the WBDC gets this land, there will be no municipal parking from the library all the way to the Federal Plaza municipal garage (across from the Hanover Theatre).  That means a private entity can basically set the parking rates for library patrons and staff.

The WBDC kindly lets the library know its patrons and staff can use the 130 surface parking spots at the YWCA.  Unfortunately, many of those spots are already filled during library hours, which still means most library-goers would still need to hoof it from a private garage.  (And if you don’t think the hockey patrons won’t also be looking to use the spots closest to the arena, you’ve got another think coming.)

There is no consideration in the WBDC’s plan for accessible parking for the library or for the hockey arena complex.

Finally, keep in mind that this is still a private entity moving forward with plans on public land that no public entity has approved.  Why shouldn’t a public have a say in its own land?

Next Steps

The library board has recently put together a Library District Task Force.  The first meeting of the task force will be on Thursday, October 4, at 4pm in the Green Room.  (How to get to the Green Room: go in the children’s room, immediately turn right, and walk up the stairs or take the elevator to the fourth floor.)  The Task Force will be talking about their priorities for the district.

Where I need your help

We haven’t had enough public discussion about this.

The McGrath lot is public land, and the public should at minimum be informed about plans for it.  We need to ensure that we see the highest and best use for this land.

If you care about this, you should:

  • Go to the library district task force meeting on Thursday.  I’ll be there, but it makes a big difference if others can come as well.
  • Contact the library board members and let them know what you’d like to see in a library district.  (I can provide you a list of email addresses if you send me a note.)
  • Contact the City Manager’s Office and let them know what the problems are with this project.  In so doing, you’ll be reminding them that the people of this city own that property, not the WBDC, and that we need to be informed and involved in the district planning.
  • Contact your City Councilors and ask them why there is a private entity making plans with public land without the public driving those plans.
  • Share this post, or the Telegram article, or your own thoughts, in social media and in letters to the editor.  The more discussion we have in the public arena means those representing us will know that this is something worth taking seriously.

Make no mistake — we have been given a great gift by the WBDC.

They have forced us to focus on this piece of land and think about what we want.

Now we need to get from “what we want” to “how to achieve it.”

Library Tip: Freegal

The Worcester Public Library offers one free audio download a week via Freegal.

Freegal is a product where libraries can buy a subscription that allows patrons to download so many DRM-free MP3s per week for free; the songs are mostly from the Sony back catalog.  In the case of the WPL, it’s one download per week.  (If you’re interested in the pros and cons of Freegal, I recommend this blog post and its comments.)

You can get to Freegal by going to the Digital Downloads link from the left hand side of the main library page, then scrolling down to the e-music section and clicking the Freegal link.  Use your library card number and password to sign in.

I hadn’t started using Freegal regularly until quite recently; I’d downloaded the two songs I really wanted on my iPod (my favorite dance remix of Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” and NKOTBSB’s “Don’t Turn Out the Lights”; I never said I had good taste in music) but found the interface (and the Sony-only catalog) to be more annoying than it was worth.

Then I realized that Cheap Trick’s older albums are on Sony, and that for some reason I never bought Dream Police or All Shook Up, and then I realized the whole Hall and Oates back catalog is on Sony as well.  That’s enough to keep me using it for months.

One of the best finds I’ve had on Freegal has been a recording of Wagner’s Parsifal with Hans Knappertsbusch conducting (I think it’s the 1951 recording, but I could be wrong).  Each act of the opera comes as one download, so you get an hour’s (or more) worth of music in one MP3.  (I’ve been wanting to listen to Parsifal for years, and the library’s copy had been damaged, so this is serendipity for me.)

If you’ve been using Freegal, how do you find it?

On a related note, Tracy and I saw that the Iowa City Public Library has partnered with local musicians to make their albums free for library patrons.

They pay about $100 for the rights to the album for two years.  I am not sure how much the WPL is paying for Freegal (though I’d be interested in seeing both what we pay and how much it’s used, and will start asking about it at a future library board meeting), but I like the idea of the library supporting local musicians (both financially and by introducing them to a wider audience).

The Iowa City Public Library has a sample contract on their site and they’re willing to answer questions about how other libraries can set up a similar service.

So — more to come (I hope) on how we could perhaps do something similar to Iowa City.

Burns Bridge Travel Advisory

via MassDOT:






Worcester, MA – As of the week of September 24th, 2012 the south (eastbound) sidewalk of the Kenneth F. Burns Memorial Bridge has been fully removed. This removal will allow installation of new Verizon communication conduits on the south side of the bridge. With the end of sidewalk demolition, nightly lane closures have ceased, but there will continue to be periodic lane closures of the eastbound lanes for utility relocation work. As always, MassDOT recommends that drivers plan ahead and allow extra time for trips through the work zone, especially when traveling at night. Drivers are reminded to reduce speed and exercise additional caution when traversing the site. Any lane closures will be configured to allow passage of emergency vehicles if needed.

Additionally, lake users are reminded that the “No Wake” zone around the bridge has been expanded to 300 feet on either side of the bridge. This is for the safety of all boaters as well as construction personnel working from boats and barges at the site. Warning buoys and signs have been set in the water to identify the limits of the “No Wake” zone. Ongoing construction operations will require the blockage of different arches under the bridge at various times during the project. The closed passages may vary from week to week, but as has been stated publicly and on the project website, there will always be a minimum 50-foot horizontal clear channel under the bridge for boating and rowing throughout construction.

Boaters approaching the bridge can identify the arches that are open or closed on a specific day by looking at the red/green traffic signals, which have been installed over each of the spans. Boaters are prohibited from passing under spans lit red while open spans will be lit green. This system is further explained in a Notification to Boaters which can be seen at the Documents website. English/Spanish signs have been installed at public boat ramps explaining this situation as well.

Library Tip: Newspaper Archives

A long, long time ago, I wrote a post about how your library card enables you to have free access to many newspaper articles.

The way the Proquest subscription service works has changed somewhat, and I wanted to write an updated post on how to search newspaper articles.

You can access the archives of many, many newspapers (including the T&G, Boston Herald, and Boston Globe — and many outside Massachusetts) if you have a Worcester Public Library card.

To access the Telegram & Gazette archives:

You can use the regular Proquest Newsstand link to access articles from other newspapers.   (You can click on the Publications option to limit your search to one or more newspapers.)

As I said before, the Telegram archives are available on this website from 1989 to the present.  They don’t include photos, but I’ve found this to be one of the most convenient services the library offers.  (And I don’t have to be in the library to take advantage of it.)

CWW: Saturday!

Four great events on Saturday:

DPW&P Open House – Saturday from 10am-2pm at Green Hill Park.  More info here.

Smithsonian Magazine Museum DayParticipating museums in Worcester include Worcester Art Museum, Ecotarium, and Worcester Historical Museum.  Get admission for two people free!

Chinese Moon Festival Party, 2pm-4pm, Worcester Public Library.  More info here.

King Street Block Party, 4pm-8pm:

Case closed!

Well, it’s good to know that the anonymous pontificator(s) at the Telegram and Gazette have a sense of humor:

The evidence presented so far paints a picture of organizations that, while on opposite sides of the political fence, share the goal of ensuring that everyone who is legally entitled to vote has the opportunity to do so.

One of the groups in question, Activate Worcester, seems to feel that welfare recipients and the “disenfranchised” need to be watched.  They didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about 3,000 new voters or supportive of their opportunity to vote.

You can have all the “calls for a re-emphasis on mutual respect” you want, but when there was no emphasis on mutual respect on the part of Activate Worcester to begin with, it’s a bit hard to believe it will happen.

There are many questions still outstanding.  It’s unclear whether the Election Commission will ever look into them, and I guarantee that things will get worse until the Election Commission stops worrying about how many verses there are in Kumbaya and starts worrying about the right of the citizenry to vote.

Here is what we need to know, in no particular order:

1) What constitutes a formal complaint and how to send it to the Election Commission.  It should be absolutely offensive to those on any side that the Election Commissioners seemed to feel that 2.5 hours of testimony did not comprise at least one formal complaint.  If you appear before a commission, state your name and address, and complain, then you should be told what you need to do to make that complaint formal.

2) How many votes were challenged?  Progressive activists felt that there were votes that were challenged for insufficient reasons, but we do not know how many votes were challenged.  Poll workers are required to note that information and write down the challenger’s name.  It’s unclear whether that happened, it’s unclear how many it happened to, and it’s unclear whether the commission will make sure that poll workers are trained in proper procedure regarding challenges.

3) Where exactly can the election commission meet?  I have attended at least one election commission meeting at the Worcester Public Library, so it’s unclear to me why the election commission dismissed Kevin Ksen’s request to have a meeting at 50 Murray Avenue because the meeting should be broadcast live.  While it is important that the meetings be recorded and televised, it’s unclear why they need to be broadcast live, when they never have in the past.

4) How many people were redirected to a different polling place and/or given provisional ballots?

5) What is the investigation procedure regarding non-poll workers?  The city solicitor said there need to be at least 6 voters in the ward to complain about a poll worker for a formal investigation.  However, my understanding is that most of the complaints were not against “poll workers” but against “poll observers.”  So — how would that sort of investigation work?

6) There were fliers indicating that people needed to show ID to vote.  Has anyone reviewed the WHA video tapes from either election day or the night before?

7) What is the role of the city clerk?  As explained in the city solicitor’s communication to the city council, the city clerk in Worcester has a different role in elections than in other municipalities due to home rule legislation from 2007.  However, he also states that “the warden is responsible for maintaining order and handling violations of election laws by election officers or others. The warden may use police assistance when necessary.”  This is something Bonnie Johnson alluded to on Thursday night — is the city clerk in charge of a polling place, or is it ultimately the warden?  Imagine, if you will, a case in which an absolutely biased warden of the Activate Worcester variety decided to eject the city clerk from a polling place.  I want to know what the powers of the warden are, and what the role of the city clerk is.  More clarification is definitely needed.

8) Better methods for ensuring that people do not become inactive voters.  We have too many voters labeled as inactive.  We need to figure out ways to make the annual street listing process a success.  If voters sign a candidate’s nomination papers, they need to be processed in a timely fashion so that they are not mislabeled inactive.  This should be a priority of the commission.

(Have I missed anything?  If I have, leave a comment.)

It’s challenging to conduct hearings where people are passionate and where testimony can quickly devolve into a tit-for-tat of accusations and name-calling.  But the Election Commission needs to clarify how people can make complaints and in what manner their complaints will be heard and addressed.  Voters also need to know that the Commission cares about truth and proper procedure.

We may never get at the truth of what happened on primary day.  But saying that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated without understanding what happened, how it happened, and who did it will not prevent this sort of behavior from occurring in November.

Keeping up with the johns-es

If there’s one thing this blog is a bit obsessed with (besides sans-serif fonts and secret cabals with Kevin Ksen), it’s monitoring the WPD’s prostitution sting press releases.

Just so we can keep a running tab for the year:

January 10 – 2 males, 9 females

January 22 – 4 males, 4 females

March 9 – 3 males, 1 female

March 22 – 5 males, 4 females

May 24 – 2 males, 4 females

June 14 – 0 males, 3 females

July 19 – 0 males, 5 females

September 8 – 11 males, 5 females

For those of you keeping track at home, that’s 27 males and 35 females (56% female).  Before the September 8 sting, it was 16 males and 30 females (65% female).

It’s rather difficult to track other prostitution-related arrests, or clearly identify a male or a female (as most folks are charged with “sexual conduct for a fee”).  Looking at court records doesn’t always tell the whole story; many cases are continued and eventually dismissed.

Recently, the Telegram had an article (“Police opt for video hub fed by cameras: Real-time data to help street patrols” by Thomas Caywood, 14 September) and an editorial (“Inescapable eyes: A free society should debate RTCC idea“, 17 September) about a WPD-run video surveillance center called the Real Time Crime Center.

It should come as no surprise to longtime readers of the blog that I adamantly oppose this kind of monitoring of people’s activities.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has lived in Worcester for more than a year that the WPD has received a grant to begin work on such a system and is requesting bids — without any community input.

Of course, another program that did not involve the community at all — the latest “solution” to panhandling — has not been successful, at least according to Councilor Rushton.

I would not mind overlords who ran my life if they were compassionate and competent, but one cannot rely on those two qualities in this city.

And — lest we forget — the WPD recently did not release video that the could have identified an arsonist at large in the downtown area.

I’m sure there will be more to learn about the video surveillance project in months to come; I’ll try my best to cover that.

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, but my resolution for 2013 is definitely to read the city budget.

On page 152 of the pdf of the FY2013 budget, there are all sorts of fascinating estimates from the WPD:

Actual calls for service in FY11: 95,321
Projected calls for service in FY12: 163,407
Projected calls for service in FY13: 163,407

Actual patrol initiated calls in FY11: 28,551
Projected patrol initiated calls in FY12: 48,945
Projected patrol initiated calls in FY13: 48,945

Actual homicides in FY11: 9
Projected homicides in FY12: 15
Projected homicides in FY13: 15

Take a look — there’s a projected increase of 60-70% in nearly every category.

Not sure what that means, but I’d love to know if we’re in the middle of a massive crimewave.