The H Word

I’d like to summarize what I saw at the library district meeting last night.  My sources are my liveblog, Steve Foskett’s article in the T&G [$], Steve Foskett’s livetweeting from last night, Gabe’s latest blog post, and my own memory.

I welcome comments and corrections from people who were there.

Meeting Logistics

Scheduling the meeting to begin at 7pm was the closest to a public process we’ve had so far.   There were enough people to fill the space of the third-floor ellipse.

Dante publicized the meeting on Facebook, Jim McKeag sent a notice to the members of the Downtown Neighborhood Alliance, and I saw that the meeting was announced on the big electronic message boards at the library.  So that definitely helped the attendance levels.

The emphasis of the meeting was, of course, how the library would interact with the district and what could be done in the district to enhance the library.

A lot of the non-library people wanted to see how the plans were going to impact the library lot, and how this integrates with the rest of downtown.

The Plan

Some of the notable parts of the draft plan were:

  • a cut-through of the Mayo property across Salem Street from the library for a pedestrian corridor (not a full street for cars)
  • closing off part of Federal Street or Allen Court — I think the former — to pedestrian traffic only; inspirations are Fourth Street in Cleveland and Louisville
  • straightening out Library Lane, which would allow more space for bumping out the library (perhaps to put the bookstore in) and move the YWCA playground to a better spot in between the YWCA and library
  • the potential of bumping out the library on the right (at the Library Lane entrance) and put in the bookstore there.
  • one of the possibilities for the area across from the library (McGrath lot) was a building with potential green space (small, square) in the middle, fronting Library Lane.

As Steve said in the article — ‘welcoming pedestrian walkways that use already existing alleyways and sidewalks along with proposals for new walkways, including a “Federal Street extension” that would span a pedestrian walkway from the former T&G parking lot to the front steps of the library.’

Things the WBDC mentioned that were crazy

Roberta Brien mentioned that there was a point on which the WBDC and Tim McGourthy could not agree.  She said if the library was hard up for parking, we could put in angled parking along the library side of Salem Street, for additional library parking.  How one would accomplish this without making Salem Street one-way (or an utter nightmare) is unclear.  Advantage McGourthy, obviously.

One of the ideas that was mentioned at the meeting in the summer — and which was expanded upon at last night’s meeting — was a black box theater with 350-400 seats for a repertory theater (likely the MRT).

The location for the black box theater would likely be 517-521 Main Street (see page 18 of this presentation if you’re not familiar with those buildings).  The theater building would have a glass front on Main Street, with entrances on Main Street and Allen Court.

One of the things that was mentioned at the meeting (a couple of times) is that there’s no longer repertory theater in Worcester.  There is, of course, a pretty successful company that does musicals and light opera and plays — the Worcester County Light Opera Company.  Perhaps they’re overlooked because they’re successful and own their own venue.

Regardless, the previous endeavor in downtown repertory theater was not financially successful in the end.  That doesn’t mean a different company couldn’t make a successful go of it, but — if the MRT were the ones presenting shows — it would likely be a two weekends on/three weekends off (or vice versa) schedule.  In a 350-400 seat venue.

So, we had a lot of discussion about a venue that would have a small economic impact (certainly not greater than the already-low-level Hanover) and absolutely nothing presented about putting in more housing (especially market-rate housing) that would support storefront businesses and restaurants for all the days of the month when there would be no shows at the black box theater.

Whatever you do, don’t mention hockey

One of the items Tim McGourthy mentioned was that the master plan will not indicate that the parking lot should be converted into a hockey rink.

The focus of the meeting was intended to be about the district and how the library would benefit from various development, and the focus wasn’t supposed to be on the hockey rink.

The problem, though, is that many people had questions about how the library would continue to be accessible if there was not convenient, close parking, and why we should give up municipal parking for a private garage.

Unfortunately, the plan we saw had a suggestion for what might go in the McGrath Lot, but there were no clear guidelines I could see on what we wanted or didn’t want in that space.

So the hockey rink was the elephant in the room — it was clear certain folks didn’t want to mention it, but it was of paramount concern to many attendees.

As Jim McKeag said, it’s unclear why the development of the McGrath Lot is being prioritized.

From Steve’s article: “With so many vacant storefronts in the area, there are other, smaller details the city could tackle right away, [McKeag] said. He said he also hoped to see more in the plan about how the new district would connect with the surrounding neighborhood.”

Jim was able to ask enough questions about the hockey development plans to get as close to an answer as we’ll ever get from the WBDC:

(screenprints via kwout)

Yes, you heard that right — after hearing the public’s concerns that plans were being made for a piece of land that they own without any input from the public, Roberta Brien confirmed that the WBDC has not backtracked and is doing a feasibility study for a hockey rink.  After all, they have a developer ready to go.  Who cares if they don’t own the land?

I spoke at the end of the meeting, and my comments were directed at the hubris that has caused most of the problems we currently have in downtown.

Take a look at CitySquare — it was supposed to be mixed-use.  It is not.

And the reason it’s not is not because there was no plan or hope for mixed-use development.

It’s because we were presented with plans from willing developers, and rather than prioritize our vision for the area, we allowed them to impose their own.

We need to start saying no to developments that do not align with our goals for an area.

Erecting a building is not an automatic success.

Putting together master plans and then soliciting public input is not a public process.

Downtown Worcester has been fractured by developers who are “ready to go” but who don’t know the first thing about urban design and don’t really care about the harmony of downtown as a whole.

All the best intentions in the world will not get us the downtown we deserve unless we are part of the process from the start to the finish.

In Conclusion

I will be very interested to see what the master plan indicates as appropriate use of the McGrath Lot.  I worry that something too open-ended will allow the WBDC leeway for their nonsensical hockey rink plans.  They have already admitted that they are proceeding with feasibility studies for the hockey rink even though it is highly unpopular and they do not (yet) have any permission from the public to redevelop that lot.

We need to continue to demand a public process.  Planning on this scale that does not begin with a charette is not a recipe for success.

We need to get a greater involvement from different stakeholders at the same meeting, and we need to publicize these meetings better.  The WBDC has been meeting with individual stakeholders one or two at a time, and I don’t believe residents have seen any of these plans.

Please attend Building the New Worcester at the Hanover Theatre on Wednesday, November 28 at 5:30pm. Bring questions, and demand answers.

The WBDC may be the city’s partner, but they are not my partner.

I have not yet begun to fight.

And I’m not afraid to use the H word.