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.”