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.

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9 thoughts on “Learning from our Mistakes

  1. pbcjr says:

    Can I post this on Facebook?

  2. Christopher Kirk says:

    Dear Nicole:
    If you want to see a healthy neighborhood in Worcester, visit Shrewsbury Street. Lots of small businesses, very few empty store fronts, very little graffiti, people feel safe walking there during the day or night.

    Why is Shrewsbury Street so healthy whereas other areas of Worcester right nearby (e.g., the area around the Common) are virtual deserts? Because Shrewsbury St. wasn’t the victim of urban planners and engineers.

    What do urban planners and engineers know about running a small restaurant or a corner produce stand? Have they ever operated any small business? Do they really know — or even listen to — people who live in or visit cities?

    If healthy neighborhoods could be planned and engineered, then every city in America would be healthy and wealthy.

    But you can’t engineer pride in one’s property or neighborhood. You can’t order people to start small businesses and to devote to it the countless hours that are required to make those businesses succeed. You can pass laws requiring people to remove litter from their streets, but they won’t necessarily do it.

    Neighborhoods are like complicated tropical ecosystems. They are the products of the people who live there. When you gut a neighborhood in order to run an interstate highway through it, you kill that neighborhood. When you demolish a cobbler’s shop, a small hardware store, a little ethnic restaurant, etc., in order to replace them with a supermarket with ample parking, you kill that neighborhood.

    Almost always, urban planning means large scale destruction in order to impose a big business on the ruins. Cities want big businesses that can afford to pay high tax bills and (they hope) lots of jobs. That’s a 1930s vision of cities: big steel plants, big auto assembly plants, etc. Those days are gone. Nowadays, big companies subcontract and outsource many of their operations so that they don’t have to pay pensions, health care, etc. Even cities and towns themselves are doing this.

    Urban planning should be tossed in the trash can of obsolete, bad ideas. It’s predicated on bigness (demolishing large areas in order to replace them with big, taxable buildings — sports stadiums, shopping malls, and convention centers are standard panaceas in planners’ opinions) and arrogance (a guy with an engineering degree knows better how to cultivate and maintain a neighborhood than a bunch of shopkeepers). Urban planning’s record is one of consistent and expensive failure.

    If you want a city to flourish, then provide good schools, safe streets, and low taxes. No urban planners / engineers required ; the little “peasants” will do what’s needed to produce a healthy neighborhood. Don’t believe me? Visit the Common, then visit Shrewsbury Street.

    • Christopher Kirk says:

      I should add that when a city administration turns to urban planners, it’s implicitly admitting that it’s doing a bad job of running the city. It’s admitting that businessmen and developers find their city to be unappealing — no one wants to invest in their city. Instead of trying to determine what the disincentive to investment is (bad schools? high crime? high taxes?), cities use government grants and subsidies to replace investment by businessmen and they use urban planners to replace the experience and judgment of businessmen. But urban planners aren’t businessmen — they don’t really have a long-term stake in the outcome of their projects, which aren’t based on business opportunities but on a belief that replacing dirty, little, old buildings with big, shiny, new ones will make a city prosper. Which is false. Which is why urban planning fails consistently.

      • Nicole says:

        Thanks for the comments!

        The city government, of course, has helped Shrewsbury Street in a few ways: various streetscape improvements (lighting, bump-outs for crosswalks, etc.) but most importantly by NOT installing parking meters on the street, which has essentially subsidized certain businesses that don’t have many dedicated spaces. (But that would be the subject of a whole different post!)

        I would also add to what you are saying — Canal District, which has mostly benefitted from a hands-off city government. I do think the government can assist with streetscaping as well as improvements in public transportation.

        Whose responsibility do you think it is to solve/undo the mistakes a city government or quasi-public agency has made in the past?

        • Christopher Kirk says:

          When a project flops, the city should contract with a realtor to sell the property, even at a loss, if necessary. If there are no buyers, then the building(s) itself is the problem, and the city should consider subsidizing its demolition. (Having helped to make the mess, they should help to clean it up.)

          Of course the city would be loathe to do that, but what’s the point of retaining a monument to failure that isn’t bringing in revenue — just to avoid admitting in public that the city blundered (which is obvious to everyone anyway)? Demolish the building, slice the lot into smaller, salable parcels, and let the market find profitable uses for the property.

          Most importantly, the city should learn not to trust urban planners. They sell fantasies to desperate municipalities.

  3. gayle says:

    Demolish 5 May st is an example – it is the biggest eyesore in a troubled neighborhood that has visibly improved in the last 5 years

  4. gayle says:

    Also by just concentrating on Downtown Krock property -parking lot as a negative , it leaves the City to do nothing about Krock property at Beaver brook. That property would be better as a cement parking lot rather than a litter catching , homeless camp that represents the old Worcester . Nothing gets done.

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