Livable Worcester City Council Candidate Forum notes

The following are my notes from the Livable Worcester candidate forum, which welcomed City Council candidates.

Telegram coverage here.

Highlights:

I really enjoyed this forum; the topics went by smoothly and the choice of John Anderson as a moderator was excellent.  He’s one of the few people who can (mostly) intimidate candidates into keeping to their allotted minute.

There were times when I was distracted by the most amazing candelabra in back of some of the district councilors; it was straight out of Dark Shadows.  I half-expected Barnabas Collins to appear as a D4 candidate.

For a couple of questions, Paul Franco decided to focus on his support of the lowest residential tax rate, at one point being a bit pointed at Matt Wally.  I assume that this will continue at Thursday’s district council debate (7:00pm at Mechanics Hall).  It was completely irrelevant to this forum and frankly was tiresome.  Wally came out the better for it, from where I was sitting.

Moe Bergman made some interesting comments about homeownership versus Section 8 (that is, that we should encourage homeownership versus affordable housing in the form of Section 8) and a few candidates took exception to it.  I would have liked to see more discussion on this (which could not happen due to the format); here’s hoping we may be able to hear more about this in other forums.

And — there were more than a hundred people!  Standing room only!

Event Notes:

Welcomed by Deborah Packard of Preservation Worcester; we’re in the Park View room (bottom floor of the Fire Alarm Building).

Livable Worcester Coalition: MA Audubon, PW, Walk Bike Worcester, Worcester Tree Initiative, GWLT, Jane Jacobs in the Woo (let me know if I missed anyone!)

Paul Dell’Aquila: planning and design concepts – topics represent cross-section of concerns from their groups. Submitted as questionnaire to candidates. They will email responses to attendees.

Moderator: John Anderson

A forum is an occasion for discussing matters of public interest, making Worcester a more livable city. Almost all at-large candidates are in attendance. 9 issues in the list.

He will look for hands/efforts to be recognized, not call on people. Each candidate’s response should be about a minute.

In attendance:
D1: Moynihan, Rose
D3: Asare, Russell
D4: Rivera
D5: Franco, Wally
At large: Bergman, King, Lukes, Petty, Rosen, Straight, Toomey

Please let me know if you need a fuller explanation of the questions; I have them but my fingers are currently tired of typing.  You will note that I am missing a question 7; that was not asked because of time constraints.

1 – Complete Streets question.

Toomey: grateful that mayor appointed her as chair of public safety, before that on public works and an advocate of Complete Streets. Should have walkable, livable city. Number of meetings, manager has just brought a plan going to Public Safety subcommittee, will be pedestrian safety subgroup.

Moynihan: appreciate that Complete Streets has been initiated. As an urban studies prof at Worcester State, bikes, pedestrians need to have safe streets. Use Green Man Plus technology – mobility, visually impaired, elderly to have swipe card to have more time in the crosswalk. Helps traffic flow.

Rosen – Complete Streets policy allows everyone to share the streets. As most of you know, he has spent past 6 months at intersections and streets. Need police enforcement for distracted drivers, people who don’t know light is red, pedestrians texting in the middle of Kelley Square.

Petty: traffic anarchy out there. Complete Streets is important, topography of Worcester makes a good biking program difficult, but we can work on this over time. City has replaced 25,000 trees

Rivera: May 23, petitioned that administration give update about Complete Streets. As chair of public health, they have been discussing this. Accessibility of different modes of transportation, more that we can have pedestrians walking, will improve econ dev.

(Anderson doing an excellent job of keeping folks to 1 minute!)

Wally: too many streets that don’t have sidewalks: Clover, Moreland, Flagg, taking life into their hands. A lot of us have been knocking doors, I don’t think anyone will shed a tear if we get hit, but kids – important to keep them safe.

Franco: as a father of 6 children, have seen what cell phones have done for attentiveness. Driving, walking while texting is dangerous, need education campaign. All of the other items are good, but his

Rose: this is a city of hills and old design. People living in districts are knowledgeable, residents should have a say into how the designs are incorporated. Sidewalks to school not done yet, Millbrook has a sidewalk that stops, bottom of Clark Street does not have a sidewalk. For residents to feel that, must see forest for the trees.

King: challenging in the city for those of us who are able-bodied. If you don’t have those abilities, difficult process. Was able to participate with Comm on Disabilities in wheelchair experience, eye-opening. He almost fell flat on his face. Need to keep those folks in mind.

Bergman: everyone here on board with Complete Streets. Sidewalks safe, streets need to be well-lit, curb cuts. Light sequencing, why can’t this be done here. Variety of ways to make choices better.

Straight: Pedestrian safety and bike safety is a traffic safety problem. A lot of unique things to Worcester that could be adjusted (lane markings through intersections), protecting green (green arrow, but might not understand if new to intersection).

Lukes: has been chair of traffic and parking – that’s when you learn what the neighbors who have to live with problems are concerned about. Cars go too fast in residential neighborhoods (that are not necessarily school zones). Last year, state gave municipalities right to review speed limits down to 20 or 25 mph, she filed in, no one did anything.

Asare: 25 years old, extremely nervous, running against an incumbent who has done a great job, but trying to get the youth involved. Complete Streets needed to be passed a long time ago.

Russell: I’m George Russell, I’m the guy he says is doing a good job. In a perfect world, we’d have Complete Streets, sidewalks on every street. When he was on the Planning Board, they made sure new developments did sidewalks. Hamilton Street, worked with DPW committee to make sure neighbors/businesses. If you put sidewalks on every street, would you take people’s land away? Some places where it is just not practical.

2 – Urban Design Review Committee; do you support, how would you have standards adopted?

Petty: thinks it’s time for a review panel. (Thinks Councilor Lukes filed it last month.) We have seen buildings in the past (St Vincent’s, one big block of brick). Different ways of having this committee. Has to be a balanced approach, don’t want to lose economic development. A lot of investment coming in, want to make sure things are right.

Bergman: can’t have helter-skelter approach and expect downtown to look good. The WRTA building is a terrible look. We can choose to be pickier, not have unattractive buildings next to good older building. We can do better job with design review.

Rosen: was going to mention the same building. Taking down Notre Dame church, thinks it’s terrible. Supports review board, would like to see city departments participate. DPW are not there for design, but they have to contribute much more. Public Health, Public Safety should be working together.

Lukes: glad everybody caught up with me, has been filing this for the last ten years. All she’s going to say because she overspoke next time.

Toomey: don’t need more bureaucracy but definitely need to take the silos down. Very important that public gets access to these plans as soon as they are submitted.

Moynihan: was able to attend an urban design conference via Jane Jacobs in the Woo, a model for urban design. Review is a way to increase value of surrounding properties, has to fit into historical integrity, needs to involve coordination and planning.

King: devil’s always in the details, want to do this in the right way. Design review enhances neighborhoods, not just buildings. Worcester is in a unique place right now for econ dev and interest. Building a consensus.

Asare: agrees with everyone. Engineers and architects – he is an engineer, sees a lot of lawyers at the table, he can bring a lot to help.

Russell: Site plan approval at Planning Board level, PB should be given teeth to review plans/deisgns of buildings. DPW is very involved – Hamilton St was from the engineers at DPW. Right now, exec planning office talks with developers. Washington Sq hotel was bragging about Inspectional Services.
(He tries to speak over a minute, goes on, the crowd is NOT pleased.)

Straight: likes Toomey’s ideas, would like to see crowdsourcing, online feedback from citizens.

Franco: urban design could have saved Notre Dame church. Webster Square – have to allow for some flexibility for neighbors/business to use their own ideas, innovation. Just ironclad rule could stifle creativity and development.

Wally: in favor of design review board. Have to see high expectations, we have to tell them our demands, high expectations.

Rose: urban design guidelines, little accountability about guidelines, if urban design board, there would be some accountability for traffic and other issues. Some incentive to developers for input from residents, other business owners.

3 – Blue Space/Green Space.

Rosen: for last 4 years, chair of Youth, Parks, Rec. Have done so much for parks, at Castle Park recently, which had been deserted/dilapidated for years. Coes Zone (have been involved in), fixed up the beach, the playground is packed.

Petty: we have invested $11 million in the parks last year. We brought someone on to coordinate the blue space. Hadwen Park is on the plan [he mentions kayaks there – my companion and I agree that this sounds crazy]. Crow Hill, Donker Farm. People even comment on how nice the parks are this year.

Rivera: Park Steward program for young people, started as neighborhood effort by Mary Keefe, not continuing strong, amazing residents in Castle Park who were using it, now new and improved. A lot of activity in University Park. Opening for Castle Park, outreach by Casey – partnerships are important.

Rose: efforts to put money into parks has been impressive. Will push for cost-effective programs in parks. Adjunct faculty at trauma center; these parks are opportunity to engage youth, health brain, exec function skills.

King: this is therapeutic, agrees with “Councilor” Rose. Able to get to calming place, helps everyone. Proud of parks program, has run summer league at Crompton for 22 years. Lives next to a park, brings everyone together.

Russell: past pres of Lake Quinsig Watershed Assoc, big promoter of water. Almost all parks/playgrounds in D3 have seen renovations. Proud of CM and programs with Recreation Worcester.

Franco: we do have some nice parks, still no comprehensive maintenance program. Folks that live on Patch Reservoir, Coes Pond, inflated assessments those folks have with no maintenance. Logan Field has divots, needs major renovations, need to maintain what we have.

Bergman: if you are affluent and live near a park, your property value goes up; if you are not affluent, you need a park. Parks Dept combined with DPW, now they are separate. Need to address problems earlier on. Give them some autonomy.

Toomey: has spent close to two decades supporting and advocating for parks. Calls out Dottie Hargrove. Seven year action plan, econ dev impact. Strength of public-private partnerships. Incredible beaches to sell Worcester.

Moynihan: Beth Proko and efforts to improve Indian Lake, has helped with that. Maintenance plan, bring back park rangers, get rid of trash. Roberto Clemente field needs a master plan.

Asare: not enough soccer fields. Someone shows up with a permit when he’s playing.

Lukes: sometimes we have to look at the vision of the city. She’s seen large projects forgotten or ignored. When Med City went up, she suggested that it was a good time to look at what Providence did and get it as a tourist attraction [we think she might be talking about canal?]. Green Hill Park has a failing golf course.

Wally: one of the benefits of Worcester is number of nonprofits: CDCs, Park Spirit, GWLT, etc., work with mission-oriented organizations to collaborate, meet our goals.

Straight: increased focus of maintenance around the entire city. Weeds taller than a person, trash stuck in the weeds.

4 – enhancing livability/affordability for entrepreneurs, students, immigrants, artists

Straight: about 14-16% affordable housing, above state mandated min, should increase to 20%, a lot of cities don’t have enough affordable housing for these people.

Wally: when you look at the perfect model of affordable housing, it’s 3 decker. Promote affordability of 3 deckers for new immigrants. Promote home ownership.

Bergman: agrees with Wally, what drives success is disposable income + leveraging home ownership. Giving more Section 8 vouchers promotes poverty. We need to help people buy homes, always a percentage of people who can’t, but we should help people buy homes.

Franco: maintaining current tax rate is the #1 thing for affordability. If you want immigrants, new buyers, have to have a low tax rate. He’s the only one supporting this – hopes the press is here to report that.

Moynihan: from aspect of artistic community, need live/work spaces. Save historic properties, repurpose as artist live/work spaces. If an artist can live/work in same space, have saved on rent. Perhaps if we had had some foresight, Notre Dame could have been one of those spaces.

King: inclusive redevelopment. We are in the midst of downtown renaissance but have to focus everywhere. Need to maintain supply of affordable housing. Doesn’t believe Section 8 perpetuates poverty, has helped family get out of poverty. We as Council have to support increasing the minimum wage.

Petty: neighborhood corporations, Nacker (?) do this. Affordable housing means a lot of things, not just Section 8. As we looked at the issue with Puerto Rico, we don’t have affordable housing here to bring people.

Rivera: negative narrative regarding burden immigrants put on the tax base, myth of affordable housing. Enhance livable wage, wage staff, spaces that support business incubators, Worcester World Cup.

Toomey: we have a lot of elderly folks who haven’t been renting out the other floors of their three deckers. Firemen, police officers, etc, could buy these. Workforce housing is truly the issue. Teacher housing to get people to stay.

Rosen: get immigrants involved in community. Mentions dog parks and Hadwen Park. Welcome people to the city, we need their help.

5 – Nodes/ corridors of activity. How would you link these to activity in downtown?

Bergman: I wouldn’t. They’re unique, they’re not downtown. Businesses that thrive in his neighborhood are of that neighborhood. Encourage home ownership in those nodes. Sometimes capitalism works and if you tinker with it, it doesn’t. They have grown successful through capitalism and recommends we leave them alone.

Wally: Menino had started Boston Main Streets program to help commercial corridors. (Park Ave, Webster Sq, Mill Street) could emulate something similar here.

Moynihan: echoes Bergman’s sentiments. Look at W Boylston St corridor, what can we do to invest there. Putting splash park where there used to be a pool, then work on pedestrian safety and traffic in that corridor for people who live in the neighborhood.

Rose: Nodes – he thinks of shopping malls. Not every node has its specialty or “thing” – help nodes come up with their specialty. Bus ridership is down, no way to get to different places with the bus.

Toomey: wayfinding plan has been modified, links other parts of the city to downtown. There are individual neighborhoods that should be individual. People should be educated to get out of their own spaces. Challenge college students to create an app to find out what’s going on in the city.

Rivera: has been advocating for connectability of downtown to Elm Park. Segue to airport/JetBlue. Moving out of comfort zone to mom-and-pop restaurants in Main South.

Lukes: in 1984, had charter reform, provision for neighborhood councils to empower neighbors. Never happened, probably because more grassroots groups organized. People in neighborhoods started looking for solutions, inspectional services, police officers, other invited…sometimes gov’t can’t force a solution.

Russell: met with WRTA manager and Deb Cary to try to get a reroute for kids to be able to get to Broad Meadow Brook. All city residents can walk the trails for free, but if you don’t have a car, you can’t get there. Also advocated for bus stop at front of Imperial Distributors because people who work there need a ride there.

Rosen: at Webster Square, we’ve had meetings to make it a destination/popular area. Huge turnouts of businesses, non-profits, residents. Working on master plan, doesn’t address downtown.

Franco: our campaign about putting neighborhoods first. Unlike his opponent, against raising the residential rate. Keep the residential rate the same, [keep not answering the question]

Wally: we didn’t want to take from anyone here, Thursday night another forum for district candidates, will honor spirit of forum and not get into individual argument. Franco gets grumpy. DRAMA AT THE FORUM!!!

King: need to be pedestrian friendly, transit oriented, mentions the Big D on Mill Street, ask the neighbors, move forward.

6 – encouraging rehab/reuse of buildings, infrastructure throughout the city.

Petty: some failures (Notre Dame church), would be great to have a fund to purchase the buildings, Community Preservation Act like Springfield and Boston. These are all important issues. Has to be passed by residents of Worcester through a ballot initiative.

Moynihan: what happened at Notre Dame was a tragedy, need to do more planning, work with PW and others, look at how to effectively repurpose them. Might have to adjust zoning in certain areas. Entrepreneurs are already doing this. Key is planning, can’t rely on prayer.

Toomey: use data and statistics: Older, Smaller, Better: this is one of the things they do. We need to see the beauty of the architecture, be open to creating new space.

Bergman: one of the things that happens when a developer comes in is that it’s easier for them to tear down and build new, we need to give them second thoughts, successful design review will integrate existing building with new uses.

Russell: City of Worcester charged people with “sewer connection fee” to convert a building to restaurant, food services, he changed that to raise threshold so that most who are converting for new use will not pay that fee.

Rose: one of issues with the building he works in, doesn’t have good internet connectivity. Building owners need help with connection to fiber optic. Incentivize.

Straight: short term tax incentives for developers, homeowners.

Wally: need to tell our story. There are developers who want to develop – but they may not know that there are buildings to develop (example of courthouse).

Franco: would like to spearhead development of various vacant properties in D5.

Lukes: authored the one-year demolition delay ordinance. Money is the driving force here. If we are serious about saving buildings, must have local incentive for architectural design, part of process for negotiating, outside the TIF process.

Rosen: Franco mentioned Diamond, Krock property on Park Ave, Big D on Mill Street. City has no $ to take by eminent domain. We don’t want to own the properties, we don’t want to inherit issues we can’t afford.

8 – increased citizen participating in master planning process

Toomey: surprised that not all these meetings are being videotaped. Not everyone can go to city hall, but we can bring CH to community.

Lukes: they had posted questions on website, limited success. We have been pretty good in making info available to public. If not as responsive as we should be, she wants to know about it. The question on Open Space and Rec reminded her of the program, thanks whoever wrote the question.

Bergman: new website will make things better, need other languages represented on the website. One area weak on: tree removal (without notifying neighbors). Argument – apathy begins in schools, need to engage children at a young age.

Franco: texting, twitter, facebook can be used to spread the word. Even folks who are not involved in social media, we still have robocalls. Robocall technology could be used more.

Moynihan: vital that we reach out to every community – the plan will not work if we do not reach out. Council needs to be the people to listen and bring people into the planning process.

Petty: people need to be notified when there is a project. (DPW projects) We do have Alert Worcester that notifies people of projects in their neighborhood.

Rivera: in her district, there were some issues with tree removal. Came back with report – conversation has continued to happen. When construction is happening, need to continue to support mom-and-pop businesses.

10 – Open Space and Rec Plan – what goal is most important and why?

Lukes: enhancing natural resources. When she was mayor, leaking gas lines destroying shade trees. Just learned that there are still 900 leaking gas lines, need to recover trees. Deal with garbage and dumping in the city. Ban plastic bags, has supported and wanted this in the past.

Rosen: biggest need is rectangular fields, many more youth playing field hockey, rugby, soccer.

Petty: improving public access to water resources. Mentions various ponds. Supports Green Hill Park golf course, not failing whatsoever.

Moynihan: has talked a lot on his Facebook page about this. Promote community gardens, where we have a chance, promotes open space and provides food to community. Food deserts are a growing problem. Worcester is no different than other cities where there is a lack of fresh food.

Rose: over 50% of WPS are considered economically disadvantaged. Need to work recreationally in our parks, between 3-6 pm, affordable programs for families, asking teachers to do more with less, need to bridge gaps. This summer space between when school ended and summer programs begin. Had basketball program this summer.

Toomey: need to do overview of the whole plan. Evaluate new open space opportunities for the future.

Wally: upgrade park and open space maintenance. No reason we can’t have the best urban park system in the country. Public/private partnerships. Commerce Park Field, other opportunities for partnerships. Deferred maintenance will cost more in the long run.

Rivera: Castle Park worked with senior facility next door. Connecting and supporting community garden. Support programs like Recreation Worcester and park stewards.

King: new open space opportunities. Access to water resources. Critical life skills on how to use blue spaces. We lost our pools, need kids to learn how to swim and take lifesaving courses. Need to use those resources smartly. We have young folks who need things to do.

Franco: can’t believe it, but agrees with Wally. We don’t have a comprehensive plan for maintaining the parks. Logan really needs an upgrade. If we don’t maintain parks, won’t be used, become urban blight.

Straight: Matt Wally hit nail on head. Access to waterways, these are clean, not pumping sewage into Lake Quinsigamond.

Closing Statements – I didn’t record these as my fingers were giving out!