Reading most stories about Worcester’s downtown is a bit like watching too much MeTV: just as the latter tends to be oversaturated with life insurance and pain-free catheter commercials, the former cannot help but use phrases like “gritty”, “mill town”, and “commuter rail.”
I hesitate to write too much about Worcester’s downtown — on this blog, it’s a bit of preaching to the choir that’s already heard the sermon half a dozen times — but indulge me in the same way that the Globe editorial board indulged in the latest “Olde Worcester Village, mill town of a thousand broken dreams” article.
Anyone who’s familiar with the WBDC’s track record in improving downtown foot traffic might be forgiven for not recognizing the new WBDC: a benevolent non-profit whose primary focus is getting people out of their offices and walking around downtown. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the WBDC dropped a dime to the Globe to make the city administration look bad.
I was shocked that the article never mentioned the need for residential units downtown, and I was pleased to see that Paul McMorrow of Commonwealth Mag took note of that key component.
But I suppose I was more shocked that no one quoted in the article gave me any good reason to live in Worcester.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what I didn’t like about the article, and I suppose it’s because I didn’t recognize the Worcester described. (And not just because of the “six-lane highway to reach downtown via Front Street” from Union Station.)
I live in Worcester. If you’re reading this, chances are you live in Worcester, too.
Is this really a city of 200,000 tortured souls just looking for a way out? Can it really be that the vast majority of us are just waiting for the perfect listing in Shrewsbury so that we can pay that town’s incredibly low tax rate?
We could spend the rest of our lives talking about what’s wrong with downtown.
Actually, if we’re Worcesterites, we will spend the rest of our lives talking about what’s wrong with downtown.
Worcester’s problem is not that downtown sucks, or that our tax rate is not conducive to new business.
That’s not to say that those are not problems, but those are not the problem.
The problem is that we — and I include residents, elected officials, and the administration in that “we” — do not have a full understanding of what the long haul is for Worcester’s downtown.
If we did, we wouldn’t allow anything into CitySquare that isn’t part of the original “vibrant, mixed-use” vision. That includes CitySquare’s two new buildings (Unum and St. Vincent Cancer Center) that “have not brought street-level businesses” because they never built any.
Too often we mistake the preliminary phase of a 20- to 30-year-long process as vision. Witness the accolades Tim Murray continues to receive for advocating tearing down the mall. The trick isn’t finding the wrecking ball, it’s focusing a generation’s worth of energy on building up a neighborhood that was ravaged by years of urban renewal and bad decisions.
Despite what the Globe article says, Worcester is not a former center of manufacturing looking to reinvent itself.
That’s what we were 45 years ago, when our forefathers decided that the way forward — at least where downtown was concerned — was to demolish the densest part of the city and focus on urban renewal (which, in Worcester’s emphasis on car-based travel, was essentially urban suburbanization).
And that suburbanization, the creation of buildings that are only accessible by car and streets that are impassable by foot, is what we’re now up against.
Worcester has never lacked for great beginnings.
What it has lacked is a consistent vision and willingness to carry out that vision.
That’s how we ended up with a convention center with no space for additional hotels next to it (though it conveniently has a hospital across the way), a rail yard in the middle of downtown, and a theater that folks thought would magically create spinoff.
We — all of us — need to always have the long-term in mind.
So when we hear that there are tiny apartments being renovated for current college students, we need to make sure that we’re also creating larger apartments that those students can use when they graduate and continue to live downtown.
When there’s another CitySquare building proposed, we need to make sure it has street-level retail and residential units.
When there’s a proposal to replace a building with street-level retail with a glassed-in theater, we need to ask why we can’t just use the theater the city forced to close.
So, Worcester, we’ve got a lot to do in the next thirty years.
And I certainly don’t want to answer my grandchildren’s questions about why we screwed everything up in the downtown once again, do you?
When the Boston Globe misses the mark yet again, it’s just annoying.
When it’s generations of Worcesterites missing the mark, it takes decades to repair.