Tomorrow night, the City Council will vote on whether to accept 45 Green Street (Rockland Trust Plaza) as a gift from the WRA (Item 9.15A).
In February of 2020, the city sold the parcel, then called the General Pickett Parking Lot, to the WRA for $100.
At the time, the WRA had received a $3.5 million MassWorks grant to renovate the parcel. Specifically, the parcel was supposed to host a “container park” where retail businesses would operate out of renovated shipping containers. You can see the original design here.
The total cost of the project ended up being roughly $2.9 million; it’s unclear from my reading of WRA meeting minutes exactly when and how the design of the plaza changed (that is, to remove the retail and lower the overall project cost).
I suppose in the grand scheme of things, none of this matters. The city briefly gave some land to the WRA, the WRA redeveloped it, the city gets it back. It’s the Worcester version of the circle of life. No one bothered to pay attention to the original plans. They were vaguely impressed by a small canal (Worcester’s version of Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge). A brief concern about changing the name from that of a Civil War general to a bank was appeased by planting a few trees and installing a plaque.
What was the point of redeveloping the parking lot? Obviously, it didn’t make sense for a weird little parking lot to be a major pedestrian path to the baseball stadium…but there are only so many baseball games a year. In reading the original proposals, there was definitely the intention to make this an active space for non-game days with programming/events/food trucks.
If I were a city councilor, I’d want to know the following:
- Why were the original plans for the site changed? Under what circumstances do we request a report back from the WRA about a significant change in site design?
- Which department(s) are going to be responsible for maintaining the landscape, the water feature, and the proposed statue of Tobias Boland? For example, if the city Parks department was ultimately going to maintain all or part of this property, were they consulted as part of this project?
- Part of the plans for this property were for permanent and temporary art displays and festivals. Is that still part of the plan? If so, who will be curating the art displays, approving permitting for events, and recruiting those who want to participate?
- What other city properties are named by an outside entity (like the sports team) after a for-profit institution?
Naming of Public Areas
There is another item on tomorrow’s agenda asking to rename Plantation Street. I don’t want to get too deeply into that right now, but that name and the renaming of “Pickett” to “Rockland Trust” (as well as creating a statue to Tobias Boland) points to an issue we have in Worcester: there is no rhyme, reason, or policy in naming or renaming public places.
There is a long list of prominent Worcester residents who have never had a monument built to them, a street or school named after them, or even a small plaque installed. While there is a process for having an honorary street designation made, I haven’t seen that used (yet) and the ways that prominent places are named is opaque, at best.
In the case of 45 Green Street, the WRA’s agreement with the baseball team was that the team would negotiate naming rights, and the team would get more than half of the naming rights. Rockland Trust secured three years’ worth of naming at $80,000 a year. The city general fund will see none of that money – the money goes to the baseball team (who never owned the land or spent anything on the redevelopment) and the WRA.
When the City Council votes tomorrow night to accept this land, we are accepting land that is prominently named after a for-profit corporation. It’s unclear (to me, at least) what the plaza should be called after those three years, and who has the naming rights at that time. Does Rockland Trust have the rights of first refusal for naming after three years? This, too, would be worth asking a legal opinion about. (I should note that when I say that things are unclear to me, they are unclear because the team did the negotiating and there was no approval by the WRA board. Nothing that happened here is in the public domain, and I don’t even know if it could be in the public domain. It’s an agreement between two private companies about the naming of public land. We are going to own land and are not privy to what conditions were made upon that land.)
But Rockland Trust Plaza is a relatively small parcel of land, and Plantation Street is one street. Rather than handling naming piecemeal, as we do currently, it would be worth investigating how to name in a systematic way. Somerville, for example, has a committee devoted to memorialization. Before we erect a statue or rename a street, we should invest the time to really look at naming from a policy perspective.
Where does the Ballpark Commission fit in?
The city established a citizen commission for the ballpark late last year, to monitor the lease agreement, approve “city events,” and (one would hope) provide transparency that had previously been lacking. The last time the commission met was in May, nearly five months ago.
According to the Community Benefits Agreement between the city and the team, the city is entitled to 8 revenue-generating events in the first five years, We’ve had two years; I have no idea how many revenue-generating events the city has held, but I assume it’s closer to zero than sixteen. We were also entitled to 10 community days a year and 15 community meetings. It’s unclear how those days have been used. And we only have three years left…
In addition, in order to pay off everything, there needed to have been 55 non-baseball events run by the team every year.As was recently reported in the Telegram, the ballpark was not actually constructed to meet the requirements to host the non-baseball events, including having doors that were not high enough. The former city manager had heard about the “height thing” but somehow having a commission specifically for this ballpark didn’t cause that information to trickle down to the residents of Worcester.
I had petitioned the city a year and a half ago for the basic information most municipalities would want about a large project like Polar Park. As of now, we still don’t have a central location for some of this information, or ANY information about community days, the city’s revenue-generating days, who is using the city-designated ballpark suite, etc.
Considering how things have been going (or not) with the ballpark commission, I don’t anticipate that we will find out any time soon.
But something worth considering is just how many different entities there are involved in the ballpark: the City Council and City Manager’s office, certainly, but also the city Economic Development office, the WRA, the Ballpark Commission, the owners of the team, various sponsors…and, in all of this, I don’t get a sense that anyone is actually keeping track of the promises made to residents.
With the transfer of this property, we have an opportunity to make certain policies clear: to make naming transparent; to include city agencies in planning for properties for which they will be responsible; to communicate significant design changes. We should not waste this opportunity.