Learning from our Mistakes

Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading — the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the “gourmet mansardic” junk-food joints, the Orwellian office “parks” featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain-gang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call “growth.”

James Howard Kunstler, “The Geography of Nowhere”

Before I continue on an extended rant about Worcester and downtown development, I’d like to step back and talk about how and why our downtown got to be what is it today.  Some of you aren’t originally from Worcester, and the background might be helpful even for those who are.

Post-WWII Urban Renewal

We don’t often think of Worcester being on the bleeding edge of anything, but in the late 1950s through early 1970s, Worcester was at the forefront of the post-World War II wave of urban renewal.

At a very high level, urban renewal as Worcester saw it consisted of a reaction to fears that downtown Worcester was dying, and that the only way to save it was to make it as suburban as possible.  The car was king, and much of the development was geared towards the convenience of those arriving by car.

For those like me, born after the mall was installed, it’s nearly impossible to imagine what downtown Worcester was like.  There was no I-290 bisecting the city and the downtown.  Traffic could flow from Kelley Square to Madison Street.  There was dense housing and businesses all the way from Main Street right up to Union Station.  There were factory buildings where the hospital now sits.  There was no brutalist post office or police station.  Worcester was built at a human scale.

While the Galleria mall is usually what first comes to mind when thinking about Worcester’s post-war urban renewal, it was actually the centerpiece of a much larger project that transformed the downtown.

Before the Galleria was even a twinkle in Francis McGrath’s eye, the next two blocks over were being transformed in the first round of a major downtown project.

The Worcester Public Library had occupied a building at the corner of Pearl and Elm Streets (now the location of the Pearl-Elm Municipal Garage).  By the 1950s, the building was too small for the community’s needs and the board of directors requested that a new library building be constructed in the Salem Square Redevelopment Project, which also included the YWCA and the McGrath Municipal Parking Lot.

The Salem Square Redevelopment Project was able to accomplish many things: two major anchor sites in the WPL and YWCA; hundreds of parking spots in the McGrath lot; freeing up space at Pearl-Elm for a multistory parking garage.

At the same time, Madison Place was being constructed, with a hotel at one end and a large, suburban-style plaza with plenty of parking for customers at the other.

As you can see, development centered on the needs of cars to the exclusion of beauty and with little consideration for pedestrians.  Development was also predicated on a myth that these areas were “blighted” and that tearing down blocks of businesses, apartments, shops, and churches would bring about economic renewal.

The “progress” continued in full force: the large glass tower (with parking garage); the reflecting pool on the Common (with under-Common parking, which I suppose was an improvement on the previous incarnation, which saw a small parking lot next to City Hall); the fortress-like police station; the destruction of whole neighborhoods in the wake of I-290; McGrath and Worcester Center Boulevards, perfect for moving vehicles and little else; culminating in the Worcester Galleria, with the Largest Parking Garage in the World!

By the time the Galleria was constructed, the tide of urban planning ideas was turning back to livable, walkable urban centers (like the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville).  But Worcester had invested too much in a bigger-is-better, car-driven vision — and on it continued: to the Centrum; to Medical City; to more parking garages and surface lots.

But things are different this time!

It’s difficult for many longtime Worcesterites to trust that Worcester Urban Renewal 2.0 will correct the wrongs of the past 50 years.

Some of the damage is long term: I-290 is here to stay, and the DCU Center and St. Vincent’s Hospital aren’t likely to move.

But, even ignoring the things we can’t change, we don’t usually leverage what we can change into the best and highest use of land and existing buildings.

When we continue to see buildings like the St. V’s Cancer Center and the Unum Building — both with minimal interest for pedestrians, adding nothing to street-level activity — constructed in key downtown lots, it gives no confidence that future construction will be any better.

The WRA has not had a winning track record when it comes to downtown Worcester.  It was the key driver of the destruction of the blocks east of City Hall, the demolition of neighborhoods for I-290, and Medical City (now St. Vincent’s Hospital). While it can be credited with the successful renovation of Union Station, that station still lacks a convenient place for passenger pick-up and drop-off nearly 20 years after its rehab, and has only recently become the intermodal hub it was intended to be.

When the destruction of downtown was in full swing, residents of Worcester were assured that the Galleria would bring in loads of visitors who would be more than willing to exit the mall to shop at existing downtown businesses.  As we know too well, that didn’t happen and the mall was a death knell for many businesses that had escaped the earlier wrecking ball.  Then as now, we are unwilling to believe that businesses are thriving in an obviously “blighted” area and to learn from their successes.

I do not wish to lay all of the blame on the WRA, as there is plenty to go around.

Worcester’s insularity — an unwillingness to trust outsiders who actually know what they are talking about, and the promotion of the in-crowd to the exclusion of the deserving — is a tradition we proudly continue.

We are more than willing to trust certain connected property owners over others who aren’t in the club.

That’s why the Mid Town Mall is continually castigated, while the Krock-owned properties — including the obscene surface lot across the street from the courthouse — mostly escape scrutiny.

That’s why the Paris Cinema building has been boarded up for years.  It’s now owned by the same company that covered up a really interesting building and turned it into the beige Portland Street Lofts.  They’re going to tear the Paris Cinema down.  They might replace it with a small grassy area with pop-up restaurant offerings.  But first — they’re going to turn it into a parking lot!  ON THE GRID!

Nobody wakes up in the morning and asks themselves how badly they can screw up downtown Worcester.

But our leaders keep partnering with organizations like the WBDC, which specializes in suburban office parks, street-level-retail-free downtown buildings, and, come hell or high water, hockey complexes in dense urban areas.

We’ve lost so much that we can never get back.  We’ve lost big brick factory buildings that could have served as loft, office, or retail space.  We’ve replaced structures made for people with structures made for cars.  We cannot lose another piece of our heritage.  We can’t afford another misstep.

When we erect a building that’s inappropriate for a site, that space is lost to us for decades.

When we demolish a downtown building, we could be knocking out a tooth that can’t be Lumineered back into existence.

The developments in CitySquare to date don’t reflect an understanding of where we came from and don’t inspire confidence about where we’re going.

It’s not too late to look back at our mistakes and correct what we can, but if citizens fail to get involved, the “renewal” crowd will blindly visit us with new and improved mistakes with which we’ll live for decades.

Your homework for next time:

Read the WRA’s Downtown Urban Revitalization Plan (and Nick K’s column).

You can provide comments at the public meeting on Thursday, May 5 at 5:30pm at the DCU Center at the Showcase corner (corner of McGrath and MLK).

I’ll write another post before that meeting with my thoughts on the plan.