Worcester Common Project: Bigger on the Inside

If it seems as if the Common has been under construction forever, that’s because it has.

The city began talking about renovating the Common in 1990, a mere 23 years after it had previously been redone.  There have been a lot of fits and starts in the renovations, and reading nearly 20 years’ worth of newspaper articles about the discussions (and, later, the renovations) causes more questions than answers.

This post is an attempt to outline what’s happened on the Common for the past twenty or so years.

The phases (and the numbering of phases) change frequently, so I’ve put together a list of The Phases of Phases.

The estimated and actual costs of the project change even more frequently, and I’ve noted that in How much has the Common renovation cost?

If you get nothing else out of this long post, get this:

In 2005, the city received $5.6 million in federal transportation funds for the skating rink, pavilion, and bicycle pathways.

By that point (2005), the project had already cost $4 million to date.  We’d been told it was paid for with state and federal money, but previous newspaper articles indicated that the city paid $2 million (half) of the total cost.

I have no idea whether any of that $5.6 million was used to cover the previous $4 million.

But any way you cut it, this project has cost the city, the state, and the federal government a lot of money.  (And — remember — we only put in the skating rink.  We never did the pavilion or the bicycle pathways.)

The City Manager was on Jordan Levy this afternoon, and he said the $2 skating fee would go to the Worcester Public Library Foundation to fund Libby and other programming.

A lot of folks have had concerns about that $2 fee, and — despite what the City Manager says — it really doesn’t matter whether it’s going to a great cause or back into the general fund.

We have spent millions upon millions of dollars on the Common.

The federal funds were supposed to be used, in part, for a pavilion with bathroom facilities.  Instead, when I took my children to the Movies on the Common this summer, we had to use a port-a-potty.

Taxpayers have spent $39,000 for beautiful tables and chairs.  One Friday afternoon this summer, I attempted to have lunch with my son on the Common.  I say “attempted” because the chairs were locked to the tables in such a way that I couldn’t sit down.  $39,000 for chairs we can’t sit on.

We have spent $2.5 million to $3 million (my best guess from the newspaper accounts) on a rink and freezing equipment.  But skaters are still going to have to pony up $2 to get on the ice.

The City Manager also said there should be a fee for ice skating because there “has to be a perception of value.”

When people complain about a $2 fee to ice skate, it’s not about the Spag’s mentality.

It’s because they have already spent years waiting for the Common renovations to begin, and then waiting for them to complete, and because the government has already spent millions of dollars to get us to this point.

They’ve already perceived the value, and a bargain this ain’t.

The Phases of Phases:

1997 Phases: Phase 1, renovations to the surface of the plaza behind City Hall and the parking garage beneath; Phase 2, completing landscape improvements on the Common edges that skirt Front and Franklin Streets; Phase 3, redoing the reflecting pool; and Phase 4, installing new lighting, walks and making other cosmetic improvements throughout the area.

2001 Phases: Phase 1 remains renovations to the surface of the plaza and parking garage; Phase 2 seems to be redesigning the reflecting pool.

2004 Phases: “Phase one of the project includes demolition of the reflecting pool, major infrastructure improvements, erection of period fencing and furnishings, landscaping and the construction of two entrances that feature granite pillars.”

“Phase two of the project primarily involves work on the rink and a complementary storage facility, which would abut Front Street. The storage structure would also contain public restrooms.”

2005 Phases: Phase One: replacement of reflecting pool with a grass area; the construction of concrete pillars at the entranceways; new walking paths; and the installation of new lighting and benches.

Phase Two: work to the front area of City Hall and construction of a collapsible skating rink, a snack shop and maintenance facility, and the terminus for the Blackstone River Bikeway.

2007 Phases: Phase Three: work at City Hall planting trees, installing new bus shelters and jack-hammering the bland concrete to produce a brick-and-granite plaza

2010 Phases: According to Moylan, “Phase I, Phase IIB and Phase IIIA of the project have been completed, and his department has aggressively focused on the final design and construction of the remaining three phases.”  I have no idea what phases those might be.

How much has the Common renovation cost?
October 1990 – renovations were estimated at $5.4 million
October 1996 – the project plan was scaled back to $3 million from $7 million
March 1997 – the project plan was “scaled back” to $3.5 million from $7 million
May 2001 – the garage/plaza renovation phase was budgeted at $2.4 million
July 2001 – now we’re told it was “originally estimated to cost $2.55 million, but is now expected to come in at $2.38 million”; we’re also told that the second phase (walkways, filling in the reflecting pool, etc.) would cost $2 million (the city would invest $1 million and seek $1 million in state grants). I assume this puts the total project cost at about $4.4 million.
July 2002 – now we’re up to $5 million, with $1 million coming from federal allocations and $1 million from city appropriations
July 2002 – The estimate for how to fund the $5 million project is now $2 million from the feds, $2 million from the city, and $1 million in private donations
April 2005 – For “phase 1” (demolition of the reflecting pool and other activities; note that this is a different “phase 1” than the phase 1 that was completed in 2001), there’s $2 million in federal funds and $2 million in city funds
July 2005 – We receive $5.6 million in federal transportation funds for the skating rink, pavilion, and bicycle pathways
September 2005 – we’re told that this has cost $4 million to date and has been paid for with state and federal money. Not sure if the state reimbursed the city for the $2 million it put up.
May 2006 – The second phase (I assume this is work on the front area of City Hall, construction of a collapsible skating rink, a snack shop and maintenance facility, and the terminus for the Blackstone River Bikeway) will cost $4.4 million
December 2007 – The third phase (I assume this is work at City Hall planting trees, installing new bus shelters and breaking up the concrete to make way for a brick-and-granite plaza) will cost $5.8 million
March 2008 – The second phase (rink pad, I think) will cost $1.8 million
July 2008 – The current phase (rink pad, I think) will cost $1.7 million. When the pavilion and skating rink’s ice maker are completed, the whole price tag will be $4.2 million to $4.7 million. We also receive $543,000 from the state for landscaping and paving.

Below the break, I’ve put in a timeline of Telegram articles you can refer to.  If you don’t have a Telegram subscription, you can access the archives with your library card.

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