The Road to Damascus

Last night’s Building A New Worcester forum was covered by Steve Foskett (article-$, livetweets) and Walter Bird.

The forum was less informative than many of the library district meetings have been, which was unfortunate because many of the audience members who asked questions during the Q&A session wanted to talk about specifics, and in detail.  There were questions about sustainability/alternative energy, public schools, the residential components of the district, and — yes — the proposed hockey complex.

What the Q&A session showed me (and should show city leaders) is that there is a real desire for deeper discussions about both the big picture (and long-term planning) and the details.  We constantly talk about how much of an asset the colleges are, and ask how we can retain college students.  Having frequent forums like this, with greater detail and more discussion, would certainly go some way towards making Worcester the kind of place a college student might like to live in after graduating.

Of course, college students — and how to attract them to the downtown — were a big part of WBDC President and CEO Craig Blais’ talk.

When Councilor Lukes asked about the WBDC’s plans for the McGrath lot, Blais spoke a bit about learning from past mistakes.

One of those mistakes, he said, was putting the food court at Saint Vincent Hospital on the inside of the facility, rather than having restaurants face the outside (and thus generate foot traffic outside of the hospital).

I am quite glad Mr. Blais has finally seen the light.  Would that he had seen it fifteen years ago.

And, of course, he does not equate the mistake he made back then with the mistake he is willing to foist on the city now.

Fifteen years ago, various people expressed their opinions about the folly of the MedCity design, and it all fell on deaf ears.

I hope Mr. Blais has progressed in his urban design enough to understand that the way to fix urban renewal is not more urban renewal.

At the beginning of his talk, Mr. Blais said that it was “important that we plan with input from the community…but respond to needs of the market” and that a “master plan is the important first step” in developing land.

One wonders which community Mr. Blais was getting input from, because it sure wasn’t the residents of Worcester.

And one wonders why a master plan — rather than a community planning discussion — is his first step.

Mr. Blais talked about meeting with “stakeholders” to discuss ideas.

But he wasn’t looking for ideas from those stakeholders — he was already presenting a fait accompli.  (Why else would the WBDC be pursuing market studies on the hockey complex for the McGrath lot after being told by the library that the complex was not welcome?)

However, I hope that people do not focus too much on the proposed hockey arena to the detriment of a much richer discussion of possibilities.

We need to be talking about residential.  We need to be talking about how this part of downtown will integrate with the rest of downtown.

And — as Mr. Blais continues to mention so passionately — we need to think about what will attract college students downtown.

A large, single-use facility that adds nothing to the vibrancy we need downtown is not going to do that.

Last night’s forum proved that there are people in this city who are ready and willing to talk about urban design issues, and who really want to see the downtown succeed.

Let’s not squander this opportunity to engage citizens to benefit the downtown.

My notes from last night; I didn’t catch all of the Q&A session because I was waiting in line to ask a question…

Jill Dagilis – tonight you will hear about public/private partnerships.  “important lessons learned”

First speaker is Tim McGourthy – “an articulate spokesperson for the city of Worcester, and a really great guy.”

Tim – thought he was here for tryouts for So You Think You Can Dance…

Discussion of bond rating.

“Seeing real interest from hotel developers”

Over 40% of jobs in Worcester are those employed by colleges and universities.

Between 2000-2008, jobs and incomes grew in Worcester more than any other part of the country?  State?  Missed that.

Most recent planning area = Theatre District

“I will have succeeded when I put myself out of work” – that is, when the private sector can do all the investment

Discussion of investment in downtown – leverage new investment that spawns further growth.

Deb Packard – PW was founded in reaction to urban renewal.

Discusses Asheville, NC – uses architectural legacy, mixed use of retail, office, residential, etc., few chain stores allowed downtown.  Festivals and well-attended events downtown.

Historic structures that promote downtown vitality: Mechanics Hall, Union Station, MCPHS has spent $50 million developing Worcester campus, Hanover Theatre.

Been calculated that theatre generates over $13 million in economic spinoff (not the words she used) a year.  Whaat?

Historic tax credits – 180 Main St, 184 Main St – examples of critical role tax credits can play in downtown preservation.

Delighted that Commerce purchased Slater Bldg.

Supports new and attractive structures melding with the old.  “Temporary custodians of the built environment”

“Challenge to make downtown vibrant by promoting mixed-use development”

Jim McKeag – talk about collaboration and partnership within the community.

Downtown Neighborhood Alliance is just over a year old.

Complaints of local business owner that he wasn’t getting response he would have liked from city regarding crime, vandalism, etc.

Alliance open to everyone: business owners, property owners, employees, residents, college students, etc.

They decided to focus on communication.  To date, success is to keep people informed, bring police and inspectional services’ attention to certain items, has researched some problems in downtown with the WBDC and the city.

Discussion of need for community policing (but no money for it).

Future needs: more community involvement,

One of the things we need to do in a time that’s seeing resurgence of small cities – we’re not just a suburb of larger metropolitan areas – need to advocate as an urban and a regional center.

Craig Blais of the WBDC –

David Forsberg graduated high school the year Craig was born.

Word to Ed Madaus and Paul DeMoga – believe it or not, it was 10 years ago that they walked into the WBDC offices – visionary leap of faith for downtown.

1965 a group of businessmen came together and founded the WBDC – charter to be leading force in economic development.  Started with $2million and a charter from the legislature.

Bob Bowditch on WBDC’s success – partnerships at all levels of government and with private business.

First steps of WBDC were industrial parks: Higgins Industrial Park

Second: Biotech phase (“ahead of its time” – “led the fight….to pass zoning ordinances” to allow research)

“Master plan is the important first step” in getting things done.

“important that we plan with input from community…but respond to needs of the market”

“need to connect the vision with what can get done”

Board of directors started with strategic plan for downtown.  What area would WBDC be best fit with its resources?

Question asked by board – what is the next chapter in Worcester’s future?
Answer: 35 acres around the Hanover Theatre

Growth from CitySquare has to come this way.

Goal – leading with people and with density.

Downtown anchors – library, YWCA, CitySquare, St. V’s, Common, Hanover Theatre, MCPHS

To attract people to downtown, focus is on colleges.

Signed an MOU with the City of Worcester and made it clear that the #1 priority for downtown is CitySquare.

They [CitySquare] should attract class A office space, market-rate housing, and even a hotel.

The WBDC will be focused on attracting colleges and universities to this area.

Connections are critically important – convenient pedestrian connections between CitySquare through various development opportunities throughout district, that pedestrians can move through the district in a quick and safe way.

He keeps talking about a “master plan”

Encourage farmers markets, street festivals, outdoor movie nights.  Safe and clean environment for those things to happen.

Street art installations, Wayfinding, food truck vendors, street lighting.

Hockey quote – “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” – Wayne Gretsky.

Community college, black box theatre, business improvement district, streetscaping, bringing college students downtown.

Jane Jacobs quote to end it.

Q&A –

Randy Bloom, co-president of Crown Hill Neighborhood Association – Crown Hill easy walking distance from theatre.  Since a lot of the time tonight was emphasizing commercial, how does preserving residential neighborhood work?

Tim – when you look at map of downtown Worcester, residential is a big component of that.

Mayo is putting in many units.

Jane Jacobs quote – requires people to live and do business in area if it’s going to be an 18-hour downtown.

CitySquare is looking into residential component, MCPHS ditto

More people to call downtown home is key

Q: one thing rarely mentioned – renewable energy – something in the green economy.  It’s Jo Hart junior!

Could we use the river for hydroelectric?  Grow more food?

A, Tim: made strides in green sustainable system, mentions WRTA, Front Street extension is to make things public transit oriented.  Could convert dilapidated properties into community gardens.

Deb Packard mentions that preservation is green – most buildings built before 1950 are pretty green.  Encourages city and WBDC to preserve and not tear down buildings.

Jim McKeag echoes – how do we look at economy in the long term?  Should be community discussion about this.  Aging infrastructure that will need to be addressed at some point.

Q: Worcester has been recognized for progress in many areas [originally from Austria].  Wants to hear about WPS and how this fits into overall strategy.

A – Tim: public school system that doesn’t work is what creates sprawl, because it encourages people to move further out of the urban core.  With new North High School and new Worcester Tech, two of five high schools are new.  Making sure that public school system that would support economy is key.  Various levels of education and training – work with employers so that they can create employees who help economic growth.

Jim – cannot have a conversation about urban planning without discussing public school system. In past plans, has often been left to the side.

Q: would like to see follow-up forum about energy.

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6 thoughts on “The Road to Damascus

  1. Sprout says:

    Were there any college students there? Has anyone asked the college students what it would take to get them downtown?

    • Nicole says:

      Yes, there were! I’m not sure if they came down for a class or other project, but I was really happy to see them. I think one of the last questions before the Q&A session wrapped up was about how college students can get involved (sadly, Steve Foskett lost his connection at that point, and I wasn’t taking notes).

      There was at least one more student waiting in line when they closed the Q&A session.

      My suspicion — and I’d love to see this confirmed — is that college students are not a unique category that needs to be catered to separately. What makes a place like Harvard Square vibrant is not just the presence of a college (and its students) but that it has a diversity of restaurants, stores, and other things to do, an active street performer community, easy access via public transportation, and a high density of residents. The goal should be to create a place that is appealing to everyone, though I certainly think we should see the areas of particular interest to college students.

      As I think back to Craig Blais’ discussion with Councilor Lukes, one item I would be remiss in mentioning is that he said that one of their goals in modifying the T&G building for student use is to put the bookstore and student cafe out of the building (or accessible from the outside, as opposed to being landlocked in one building). This would encourage foot traffic.

      I’m not sure why he couldn’t take that concept and apply it to the larger six-block area. To say on the one hand that you want to make buildings interact with the street by having bookstores and cafes facing the street, and on the other hand that you want a hockey arena complex with NOTHING of interest to pedestrians…it just doesn’t make sense.

  2. Eric K. says:

    I surveyed a few of those college kids the other night, at least two of them mentioned (unprompted, of course) that a locally owned flower shop downtown would be a big draw…….

    Did I hear one of the speakers correctly, or am I making this up? The renovation of the Hanover Theatre added $5,000 to the value of my Burncoat home? Wow, just 10 more downtown theater renovations and we will be back at breakeven on our house……

    Paris (Theater) anyone?

    • Sprout says:

      Oh Eric, you slay me!

    • Nicole says:

      Eric, you heard right. From the Telegram website[$]:

      Hanover Theatre generates about $13.5 million annually in economic impact in the city, and has increased the property value of an average home in Worcester by $5,000 per home, she said. It has also helped keep some restaurants open during the recent economic downturn, Ms. Packard said.

  3. Sprout says:

    MCPHS has certainly brought college students downtown. Anyone know what business openings that has lead to?

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