Theatre District Master Plan Notes

planOver the past few weeks, I’ve been discussing the Theatre District Master Plan with some friends, and I know I’ll have a long talk with another friend before Wednesday’s meeting at the Hanover Theatre.

So what follows is what my friends and I found most interesting about the plan.  I hope it inspires you to read the master plan and attend the meeting on Wednesday.

What is the Theatre District?

For the purposes of the plan, the Theatre District encompasses:district

  • The area bounded by Main, Franklin, and Myrtle Streets, and McGrath Boulevard (from the Hanover Theatre to the Worcester Public Library)
  • The block bounded by Main, Front, Mechanic, and Commercial Streets (or — at least — the part of the block closer to Main)
  • The block on Main Street across from the Hanover
  • The Denholm Building, the PASOW Building, and the parking lot adjoining them
  • The Common

For the purposes of this post, I’ll talk mostly about the areas recommended for redevelopment, as well as some of the minor points of the plan that should be looked at in greater detail.

Former Telegram Buildings (20 Franklin Street/20 Federal Street)
Proposed T & G building facade with optimistic banner

Proposed T & G building facade with optimistic banner

The master plan calls for “an Innovation Center on Franklin Street, an academic tenant with ground-floor restaurant/retail on Federal Street, and a theater/conference center off Allen Court with a front door on Main Street.”  (pp. 37-42)

As far as I can tell, innovation centers provide shared services/office space/support for start-ups.  It sounds well enough to me, but the sketch of how the facade might be “improved” (se p. 40) is unremarkable at best and ugly at worst.  I like the facade of the Telegram building (except at ground level) but I know others don’t.  The sketch doesn’t make it any better.

One of my friends said, “I love all of the ground level glass, it connects life indoors with life outdoors, but how are you going to keep the occupants from putting up blinds like nearly every other ground level office space in the city?”

And I agree — one of the concerns in the plan is that much of the ground-level glass is office space that has closed blinds; one of the goals of the plan is to activate the alleys.  Nothing in the sketch helps with either of those.

I love what the plan shows for the building at 20 Federal Street (p. 41).  The two upper levels would have an academic use; the ground and lower levels would be used for restaurant/bistro.

Black Box Theater/Conference Center between Main Street and Allen Court

The third part of the plan for the former Telegram properties is the black box theater. (p.42)

This would require tearing down either 517 or 521 Main Street (likely both); these are two small buildings where Metro PCS and Great Wall currently occupy the first floor.

The building would be glassed-in (like an Apple Store) and be part of the 20 Franklin Street building (and — I think — 20 Franklin Street would actually house the theater, and that the glassed-in part on Main Street would have some public space, box office, and perhaps conference space).

The Merrimack Repertory Theater in Lowell is looking for a second city, so the goal would be that the MRT would do a show for three weeks in Lowell, and then do the same show for two or three weeks in Worcester.

I’m skeptical of this part of the plan, but perhaps that’s because I’m not a theater person.

But even if I were a theater person, I think we should ask what the black box theater would do on the “off” weeks.  Certainly, there are other area organizations that have a need for a 300-400 seat performance space (Greater Worcester Opera and Worcester Chamber Music Society immediately come to mind).  Could they be persuaded to use this space instead of a college theater or church?  I’d like to hear more about the other uses for the theater (besides MRT) and how this will bring people downtown.

Allen Court and Burnside Court

One of the things I like about the plan is that it tries, wherever possible, to mention possible pedestrian connections and improvements.  Making Allen Court (next to 20 Franklin Street) and Burnside Court (in between Hanover Theatre and Stevens Block) into shared alleys is one of those suggestions (pp. 13, 22-23, 28-31).

The proposal is that the alleys could be used as pedestrian connections, performance space, or a pedestrian mall.

As you exit the burning Hanover on the fire escape, don't burn your feet on those lights.

As you exit the burning Hanover on the fire escape, don’t burn your feet on those lights.

I think it might be tough to convert Burnside Court to this purpose; the Hanover Theatre has a fire escape on that side, and so — in order for pedestrians to find anything of interest (and to feel safe at night) the Stevens Block would need to put in some storefronts on that side of the building.

Allen Court Fantasy

Photoshop fun on Allen Ct.

Allen Court is narrower (just 30 feet across to Burnside’s 35 feet), but if the WBDC were committed to having interesting shops on their building, and the Park Plaza put in storefronts on the other side of the alley, it could have potential for pedestrian interest.

It’s going to take more than twinkly lights overhead to make people want to walk down an alley, and the alleys can only work if we have a lot of residents and other folks about at all times of the day.

And we still need to ensure that there’s nothing obstructing the alleys from one of their primary purposes: allowing deliveries.  That means no permanent seating (as seen on p. 40), and no trees (as seen on p. 40 and 44).  There still needs to be space to do business.

Midtown Mall

Midtown MoseyPart of the plan calls for making significant renovations to the exterior and interior of the Midtown Mall and redeveloping it as a creative economy incubator.  (You can see details on p. 28, 36, and 45.)

The plan notes that the Midtown Mall is a great pedestrian connection between Mechanic and Front Streets, and certainly one that college students, downtown workers, and residents would use more if there were more venues of interest both inside and outside the building.

So the plan calls for a “creative economy incubator.”  In this case, that means small “spaces for creative retail, artists and craftspeople” on the ground floor, and the non-street-level space could house “an institutional partner, as well as smaller arts organizations within Worcester seeking shared administrative and support services”, and/or small performance or studio space.

One of my friends loved this idea, calling it a year-round stART on the Street.  It sounds a bit like the Crompton Collective, except right in downtown.

But one of our concerns is that in this and other parts of the theatre district, existing businesses seem to be expendable, and don’t seem to fit the demographic that is desired.

If the tenants in the Midtown Mall, or the Money Stop — another business mentioned as “not responsive to downtown existing office clientele) — weren’t doing a decent business and didn’t have clients, they would not be able to make their rent and would go out of business.  Just because we don’t like a check-cashing business, or think a business is located in a building with an ugly facade, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t serve a need.  Where would those businesses go with a building renovation?

The McGrath Lot

The plan says — and I certainly agree — that the McGrath lot should be redeveloped.

It doesn’t recommend the hockey arena proposal, and it doesn’t really propose anything definite except some improvements to that end of the library, straightening out Library Lane, and adding a bit of green space in part of the lot area.

I’m sure a lot of people will bring up plans for the McGrath Lot on Wednesday, and my hope is that we can get mixed-use development.  I didn’t see plans for a small or medium-sized grocery store (like Trader Joe’s) to support the 600-800 units of additional housing in the area.  (Frankly, I didn’t see exactly how 600-800 additional units of housing would be developed in the district, either, though I think that can happen.)  I hope that this might serve as a good spot for that.

Pedestrian Connection through the Portland Street Lofts
Creepy PasswayThe plan proposes an indoor pedestrian walkway between Portland and Salem Streets through Mayo’s Portland Street Lofts.  (pp. 22-23)
I think it would be great to have a connection between Portland Street, and especially one that connects Main Street all the way to the library entrance.
But this is not that connection.
During the daytime, this might be fine; with a lot of activity, this would be acceptable.
But I frequently walk by the library after 9:30 or 10:00pm.  I avoid the covered arcade and prefer to walk on the street.  It’s tough to see who’s coming at the other end of the arcade, and it would be tough to get out of it if trouble presented itself.

I don’t see how the pedestrian connection through the Portland Street Lofts would be any less creepy than the WPL arcade.

Renovation of the Park Plaza, Filene’s, and PASOW Buildings

I like the proposals to make the Park Plaza higher-end housing, and the Filene’s building (where Theatre Cafe is) into student housing.  The PASOW building is quirky and I think it might take a patient developer to make that into market-rate housing.

The devil’s in the details

There were some smaller points of the plan that I didn’t particularly like.  While none of them are essential to the plan, all should be considered carefully:

Unnecessary Traffic RestrictionsMaking Salem Street one-way and part of Portland Street one-way.  On page 53, there’s a proposal to make Salem Street one-way (so, you could drive from Myrtle to Franklin) and Portland Street one-way from Federal to Myrtle.  The reason for this change would be to allow angled parking on the one-way portions of the streets.  This would mean a net increase of 14 parking spaces.  For me, fourteen additional spaces are not enough to warrant that kind of change in traffic patterns.

WaylosingWayfinding.  The not-quite-implemented Wayfinding system is mentioned on p. 32.  Some of us feel that the sign for the Downtown district is hard to read (that is, when you’re driving or even walking, it’s tough to read “Downtown District” because of the font and the fact that it’s oriented sideways), though as a piece of public art the mosaic is quite beautiful.  We can also have a “Theatre District” for planning purposes, but calling a six-block area a “district” as part of a larger (but still quite small) Downtown District would be totally confusing for wayfinding purposes.  At least two theaters are not in the district (Mechanics Hall and the Palladium) which would really add to the confusion of visitors.  Also, can we have wayfinding that looks like this?

Parking.  parking-pParking needs for the district are discussed on pp. 52-53 of the plan. “One recommendation of the Master Plan is the establishment of a digital Downtown Parking signage program that highlights available spaces and distance to employees and visitors to the Downtown so that parking availability is better understood” — in other words, “smart parking.”  It’s unclear whether it would also be one of those parking situations where the price to park depends on the time of day, the demand, etc.  One thing that would help visitors find parking easily in Worcester is uniform signage — that is, a big blue sign with a white P on it.  The city parking garages and lots don’t have that, and it might not be obvious where public parking is until someone has driven by it.  We can certainly make improvements to (and standardize) basic parking signage now.

Parking, continued.  If I may editorialize for a moment, I’m a big fan of the pay-and-display parking in Brattleboro, VT.  You put some coins in a machine, it spits out a ticket that says when your paid parking expires, you put the ticket on your dashboard, and go about your business.  I think if you pay at the garage, you can use the spare time on your ticket at any other metered spot in the downtown.  Pay-and-display isn’t perfect — what do motorcyclists do? — but an affordable, standard parking fee would be better than a complicated system directing you to different lots.

What we could already be doing

Façade improvements.  The plan notes different buildings that need façade improvements, none of which are a surprise to Worcesterites: the Paris Cinema, the WCCA Building, the Shack’s Building, the Midtown Mall, among others.  The city currently has a grant program for these sort of improvements.  Has anyone spoken with the property owners already to see why they aren’t taking advantage of the program?  Are they aware of the program? Do they know about it and not like it or find it too difficult (or still to expensive to make the improvements), or do they just not care about their storefronts?

Pop-up galleries.  Movies on the Common has shown that people are willing to go downtown for a good event; stART on the Street has shown how much people like art. Could we work with an existing arts organization, like ArtsWorcester, to make this happen soon?  Designate a location, create a simple & cheap on-line permit process, and get the word out to artists.  (And — preferably — get a food truck or three to come.)

In conclusion

I’ve got a few more thoughts on the master plan, but this post has gone on long enough.

I welcome your thoughts on what you like and didn’t like.