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.

Friends of Worcester Public Library book sale this weekend

On Friday, April 29, and Saturday, April 30, from 10am-4pm in the Saxe Room at the main branch of Worcester Public Library, the Friends of WPL will hold our Spring book sale.

When you pay (incredibly low) yearly dues to the Friends, or make book donations, or purchase from the Food for Thought Cafe and Bookstore, or buy bags full of books at our book sales, you support the Friends’ many programs, including museum passes and the Give and Take bookcase at Union Station.

So come on down and buy a lot of books!

 

Hope Cemetery Events

On Tuesday, May 3 at 6:15pm at City Hall’s Levi Lincoln Room, the Hope Cemetery Commission (on which I serve) will be holding our third public meeting regarding a cemetery master plan.  Please come!

On Thursday, April 28 (tomorrow) at 11:00am, the City of Worcester and the Friends of Hope Cemetery will host a ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the completion of a joint project to install a new water infrastructure system at Hope Cemetery.

The Friends of Hope will also be sponsoring programs for many Saturdays over the next month:

  • Saturday, April 30 from 1:30-3:30 pm (Rain Date May 1): Odd Bedfellows: Connecting an Artist, a Tycoon, and an Editor, a walking tour led by Jan Parent and Bill Wallace
  • Saturday, May 7 from 10am-12:30pm: a gravestone rubbing class led by Brenda Sullivan
  • Saturday, May 14 from 10am-12:30pm (Rain Date May 15): birdwatching walk led by Cheryl Farnum
  • Saturday, May 21 from 10am-2pm: Pre-Memorial Day Hospitality Service with coffee and pastries

 

 

 

Worcester: New Year, Same Vision

Like many of you, I still hadn’t recovered from the WBDC Worcester 2020 video when the news came about the WRA Urban Revitalization Plan.

I’ll start writing about the plan in the coming days (and I’d appreciate the feedback of others as I take a look at the plans) but we may as well start with other groups’ visions before we tackle the WRA.

While I’ve often felt that Worcester would be the perfect setting for a 1970s-era dystopian fantasy, it’s nice to see that others have taken that to a new level.

Vision 1: WBDC/Worcester 2020

For those of you who’ve always wanted to see what Worcester looks like after a neutron bomb, now’s your chance.  Don’t worry, there’s still enough of the old Worcester so that you won’t get lost.

Plus: with no stops to make, and no passengers to carry, the commuter rail will finally achieve a first: being on-time!

Minus: since it’s still Worcester,the planned crosswalks will lead you right into large shrubs.

Plus: with fewer pedestrians in Worcester than any previous point in history, we have finally achieved pre-Jonas Rice population levels.

Minus: 2020 Front Street has even fewer storefronts than 2016 Front Street.

Plus: Worcester Common: it’s bigger on the inside!  And it has food trucks!

Minus: Spoiler Alert: Soylent Green is people!

Plus: Worcester now has a “Symphony Hall”.

Minus: The WBDC has taken control of Mechanics Hall and turned it into a 21st century roller skating rink.

Vision 2: The The

For years, downtown Worcester has lacked the one item so many major urban metropolises have possessed: the definite article.

We no longer need to feel inferior to Providence, Boston, or Sandusky.

We, too, finally have a plethora of Thes.

The pioneering The was The Edge at Union Station, which encourages thousands of commuters just like me to Live on the Edge.

It’s brave marketing, particularly since someone could look at the prices ($975 per bedroom for a 4 bedroom flat) and say I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

Not to be outdone, The Grid District contains many buildings — Park Plaza, Portside, Bancroft — all of which are ON THE GRID, which I would certainly expect, considering we’re in a first world country in the 21st century.  No word yet on whether they have indoor plumbing and party lines, but one can dream.

It would be slightly more exciting, and certainly more in keeping with Worcester’s pre-post-apocalyptic tradition, if The Grid had a Tron theme.  Not a 2010, Daft Punk, CGI Jeff Bridges Tron.  Try 1982, Bruce-Boxleitner-where-did-you-get-those-glasses, no-that’s-not-how-computers-work Tron.

Pac Man in the streets.  It’s what we deserve.

wootron2020

On a more serious note…

The reason no one in that video wants to talk about the Mid Town Mall is that, come 2020, it will still have higher occupancy and more foot traffic than the rest of downtown.

We need to start asking why the WRA is beginning the process of pushing out many longtime business owners, people who have actually had successes in a down economy, in areas that the city considers difficult to do business in.  Rather than asking what the secret to their success is, or how the city can be partners in that success, we’re talking repackaging properties for resale to developers.

More soon.

Tuesday’s primary welcomes “designations”

For the few of you who didn’t already know, Massachusetts will hold its presidential primaries this coming Tuesday.  This is an event that used to only be open to those registered in a state-recognized party, or to those who are “unenrolled” voters.  Voters in the latter group could show up and request a ballot from any of the recognized parties, cast a vote in that primary, and then go back to being unenrolled as they checked out at the end of the process.

Besides four recognized parties (Republican, Democrat, Green-Rainbow and United Independent Party), there are also 24 political “designations” under which a voter could be registered.  Previously, voters registered under a designation could not vote in party primaries.  This year, due to a change in law, they can.

Here’s a message from the Elections Division of Secretary Galvin’s office on this subject:

Due to a recent change in law, voters registered with political designations may now register to vote in political parties.  If you are registered with a political designation, you may vote in the same way an unenrolled voter would – by choosing a ballot when you check-in at your polling place.

This admittedly only affects a small minority of voters, but if you’re registered with a designation and have previously been excluded from primaries, you’re now included.  Have at them!

Slow-draw McGrath

About a year ago, folks who use the McGrath lot in back of the Worcester Public Library got a shock when they discovered all of the parking meters removed and replaced with numbered signs, which required the parker to remember a number and go pay for their parking at a machine in a corner of the lot. Additionally, several rows of parking were put off-limits to the general public. It was a system that made very little sense, and was described on this blog in detail.

There was widespread confusion about the new system; within a few months, some of the flimsy number signs were broken off, and it beggars the imagination to believe that revenue has been any better since the new system was put in place.

The latest “improvement” to the system involves removing most of the number signs. You can now park in front of a metal pole with a wooden block on it:

Your choice -- top-mounted block or mid-level block.

Your choice — top-mounted block or mid-level block.

…or a plastic post, either straight or bent:
bent_or_straight

There are a few numbered signs left, on which you can post your pleas for help:
note1

"Please someone hav already paid for this lot.  Thank you."

“Please someone hav already paid for this lot. Thank you.”

…or you could park in front of an empty sign holder:
no_number

Whichever spot you pick, you’ll want to bring some tools to figure out your spot number. An ice pick would have been handy last week, a snow shovel the week before. Today you only needed a broom to sweep away the sand off the number painted on the pavement.
squint1squint2

Remember not to park in the green section, which is usually mostly empty:
greenzone

Don’t look for any clarity when you reach the pay machines — all of the helpful instructions and lot diagrams have been removed from the machines.
machines

Despite all of this city-generated confusion, we saw a uniformed employee out ticketing cars on the morning these photos were taken.

It seems that if there’s a wrong way to do something, Worcester will find that way, and come up with a method to make it even more wrong.

CDBG Hearing Tonight

The City of Worcester is seeking community input for the best use of FY2017 Community Development Block Grant program funds to assist low- to moderate-income individuals and families.

When: Thursday, December 17, 2015 at 5:30 PM
Where: City Hall, Levi Lincoln Chamber, Room 309,
3rd Floor, 455 Main Street, Worcester MA

Community Input Wanted!!

The Executive Office of Economic Development Invites You to a
Public Hearing to Discuss and Prioritize Community Needs Related To:

Education
Health
Transportation
Public Infrastructure
Food Access
Public Safety
Housing
Jobs
Parks & Recreation
Other Pressing Needs