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.

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Reminder: WRA Meeting on downtown tomorrow

Friendly reminder that there will be a public hearing tomorrow, February 26, at 5:30 pm in the Levi Lincoln Chamber at City Hall for a WRA citizens advisory committee to discuss the Theater District and more.

On a related note, WoMag reports that the Chamber of Commerce has unveiled an interactive map of development opportunities downtown.

Those of you who use the McGrath Lot on a regular basis will be pleased to note that it’s tagged as a “Development Opportunity” and that those interested in developing it should contact the Chamber of Commerce for more details.

Now, I don’t think a parking lot is the best and highest use of the space that the McGrath Lot is in, but I’m not sure why someone should contact the Chamber of Commerce about developing it and not, say, the folks who actually own the property — the City of Worcester Off-Street Parking Board.

When we previously looked at the McGrath Lot, we found a rainbow of colors being used for a “green” section and an “orange” section.

We heard back from the folks at DPW a few weeks ago.  They (disappointingly) did not answer questions about whether someone who has an HP placard needs to pay if all the handicapped parking spaces are full.  But they did make it perfectly clear that folks should not park in the green zone.

At the February 10 City Council meeting, Councilor Lukes asked about the state of affairs at the McGrath Lot.

In short, the City Manager said that changes needed to be made to accommodate the QCC students.

It’s unclear why the McGrath Lot needs to be making the accommodations, or even who made that decision.

Many library staff members are not able to park in the McGrath Lot and instead park at the Green Street lot.  And, as Councilor Lukes pointed out, to add insult to injury, they have to respond to numerous questions/complaints about a parking lot that they are not responsible for, receive no revenue from, and — in some cases — can’t even park in.

My impression was that any changes to rates and parking policies should be set by the Off-Street Parking Board.  According to the city boards and commissions agenda site, this board hasn’t met since 2013.  So — who said it was ok to carve off 1/4 of the busiest, most profitable public surface lot in the city?

Whatever you do, don’t take the City Manager’s word for it.

He said that the lot is now being used a lot more than it was historically.

I beg to differ.

The McGrath Lot has consistently made money for the city, in large part due to the traffic generated by the Worcester Public Library.

Compare that to the Federal Plaza Garage, which is just as close (if not closer) to the QCC location at 20 Franklin Street, and which usually has an operating deficit on the order of $200,000 a year.  Why wasn’t that considered when QCC was looking for student parking spots?  Couldn’t it use all the revenue it can get?

[Side note: every time you pay $10 at the Federal Plaza Garage for a Hanover Theatre event, $9 goes to the Hanover and $1 goes to the city.  I suspect if all the money went to the city that owned the garage, it might actually be in the black, or close to it]

In the grand scheme of things, a parking lot next to a library doesn’t seem like much.

But this is a parking lot many of us park in when we go to the library or public meetings at City Hall.

It’s a parking lot that’s been in the sights of developers who have no sense of appropriate urban design (indoor college hockey complexes, anyone?) and that has had a section reserved for a private entity, with (as far as I can tell) no public hearing or input.  If certain folks had their way, they’d take this parcel (for a song), library staff and patrons be damned.

I don’t have a problem with the city selling monthly parking passes at the McGrath Lot, or any public garage or lot.

But let’s not pretend that fining people $25 for parking in a poorly-labeled, underused reserved section of a public parking lot means that the lot is being used more than it was six months ago.

 
(If you want to read more about parking in Worcester, the Parking Program Assessment from a few years ago is an excellent place to start.)

Theater District Citizens Advisory Committee

A year and a half ago, there was a call for a citizens advisory committee for the WRA to plan the theater district.

The following folks will serve on the committee:

Chairman John Brissette (yes, the very same individual who was pushing the hockey rink)
Vice Chair Jill Dagilis
Frank Carroll
Linda Cavaoli
Paul Demoga
Jack Donahue
Alex Dunn
Michelle Jones-Johnson
Alec Lopez
Stacey DeBoise Luster
Mable Millner
Deborah O’Malley
Hong Tran

So, many of the major downtown stakeholders (Becker College, MCPHS, YWCA, etc.) are represented in one way or the other on this board, excepting the Worcester Public Library.

There will be a meeting to discuss the urban renewal plan (not sure if it’s the same as the original plan) on Thursday, February 26 at 5:30 at the Levi Lincoln Chamber of City Hall.

A few other random notes:

As the Telegram reported [$], the WBDC has been renovating 20 Franklin Street, and is still looking for a tenant to run a restaurant in the first floor.  I wish them all the luck in the world, but the facade of the building is even uglier than the artist renderings.

We will, I’m sure, hear about the necessity of a 300-seat theater, so it’s good that the Paris Cinema has reared its head once again to remind us that we already have a small theater.

I’m interested to see how this ties in to the proposed residential/retail development in CitySquare.  You may recall [$] that there was supposed to be a restaurant and retail in the Unum building, but I don’t see either when I go by the building.  [Readers, feel free to correct me!]  There’s also nothing of street-level pedestrian interest at the St. Vincent Cancer Center or the WRTA Hub.

I have been reluctant to write about this because I say the same things over and over again, but we cannot keep making the same mistakes and expect that things will get better downtown.

Replacing an indoor mall with a bunch of buildings with no street-level retail/restaurants is not an improvement and will not increase pedestrian traffic or drive people downtown.

At this point, if there is any further development that doesn’t include vibrant street-level activity (not offices, and certainly not a glassed-in entrance to a black-box theater) we will have missed the whole point of getting rid of the mall.

If the retail/residential development in CitySquare loses the retail component, we will have lost.  If we take away parts of Main Street that have retail and replace them with something that’s not retail, we will have lost.

We are at an absolutely critical moment in downtown development.  Don’t let’s screw it up.

Worcester: Dying Mill Town, news at 11

Reading most stories about Worcester’s downtown is a bit like watching too much MeTV: just as the latter tends to be oversaturated with life insurance and pain-free catheter commercials, the former cannot help but use phrases like “gritty”, “mill town”, and “commuter rail.”

I hesitate to write too much about Worcester’s downtown — on this blog, it’s a bit of preaching to the choir that’s already heard the sermon half a dozen times — but indulge me in the same way that the Globe editorial board indulged in the latest “Olde Worcester Village, mill town of a thousand broken dreams” article.

Anyone who’s familiar with the WBDC’s track record in improving downtown foot traffic might be forgiven for not recognizing the new WBDC: a benevolent non-profit whose primary focus is getting people out of their offices and walking around downtown.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think the WBDC dropped a dime to the Globe to make the city administration look bad.

I was shocked that the article never mentioned the need for residential units downtown, and I was pleased to see that Paul McMorrow of Commonwealth Mag took note of that key component.

But I suppose I was more shocked that no one quoted in the article gave me any good reason to live in Worcester.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what I didn’t like about the article, and I suppose it’s because I didn’t recognize the Worcester described.  (And not just because of the “six-lane highway to reach downtown via Front Street” from Union Station.)

I live in Worcester.  If you’re reading this, chances are you live in Worcester, too.

Is this really a city of 200,000 tortured souls just looking for a way out?  Can it really be that the vast majority of us are just waiting for the perfect listing in Shrewsbury so that we can pay that town’s incredibly low tax rate?

We could spend the rest of our lives talking about what’s wrong with downtown.

Actually, if we’re Worcesterites, we will spend the rest of our lives talking about what’s wrong with downtown.

Worcester’s problem is not that downtown sucks, or that our tax rate is not conducive to new business.

That’s not to say that those are not problems, but those are not the problem.

The problem is that we — and I include residents, elected officials, and the administration in that “we” — do not have a full understanding of what the long haul is for Worcester’s downtown.

If we did, we wouldn’t allow anything into CitySquare that isn’t part of the original “vibrant, mixed-use” vision.  That includes CitySquare’s two new buildings (Unum and St. Vincent Cancer Center) that “have not brought street-level businesses” because they never built any.

Too often we mistake the preliminary phase of a 20- to 30-year-long process as vision.  Witness the accolades Tim Murray continues to receive for advocating tearing down the mall.  The trick isn’t finding the wrecking ball, it’s focusing a generation’s worth of energy on building up a neighborhood that was ravaged by years of urban renewal and bad decisions.

Despite what the Globe article says, Worcester is not a former center of manufacturing looking to reinvent itself.

That’s what we were 45 years ago, when our forefathers decided that the way forward — at least where downtown was concerned — was to demolish the densest part of the city and focus on urban renewal (which, in Worcester’s emphasis on car-based travel, was essentially urban suburbanization).

And that suburbanization, the creation of buildings that are only accessible by car and streets that are impassable by foot, is what we’re now up against.

Worcester has never lacked for great beginnings.

What it has lacked is a consistent vision and willingness to carry out that vision.

That’s how we ended up with a convention center with no space for additional hotels next to it (though it conveniently has a hospital across the way), a rail yard in the middle of downtown, and a theater that folks thought would magically create spinoff.

We — all of us — need to always have the long-term in mind.

So when we hear that there are tiny apartments being renovated for current college students, we need to make sure that we’re also creating larger apartments that those students can use when they graduate and continue to live downtown. 

When there’s another CitySquare building proposed, we need to make sure it has street-level retail and residential units.

When there’s a proposal to replace a building with street-level retail with a glassed-in theater, we need to ask why we can’t just use the theater the city forced to close.

So, Worcester, we’ve got a lot to do in the next thirty years.

And I certainly don’t want to answer my grandchildren’s questions about why we screwed everything up in the downtown once again, do you?

When the Boston Globe misses the mark yet again, it’s just annoying.

When it’s generations of Worcesterites missing the mark, it takes decades to repair.

WRA citizen advisory committee

I know many of you care about a downtown urban renewal plan and are interested in being more involved.  There are details on applying to serve on a citizen advisory committee in a memo from Tim McGourthy (item 8.4c) on the city manager’s portion of next Tuesday’s City Council agenda:

We have received significant interest from those looking to serve on the Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) planned as a component of the urban renewal process outlined in the memorandum to City Council submitted on September 24, 2013.  The CAC will provide an opportunity for the Worcester Redevelopment Authority (WRA) to solicit public expertise on various concepts and approaches in between the formal public meetings held as part of the public process.  The CAC is advisory but its comments and discussions will inform the thinking of the WRA and its staff as they explore the role of urban renewal in addressing the issues and alternatives facing the Downtown and the urban renewal area in particular.
 
As Chief Executive Officer of the WRA, I will be appointing the members of the CAC to ensure a cross-section of real estate, finance, legal, and community input.  To the extent possible, we will look for individuals familiar with urban planning and development or with a direct connection to the Downtown.   
 
While membership on the CAC will be limited, if anyone is interested in serving on the CAC he or she should send a letter of interest and a resume to Jane Bresnahan at bresnahanj@worcesterma.gov.  We will be appointing individuals by December.

Theatre District – Saga (Temporarily) on Hold

I’m away from Worcester right now, though in a remarkably similar city.  It’s got beautiful downtown buildings, an active anti-panhandling campaign, and plenty of streets with no street signs.  It’s just like home — except for a distinct lack of hills and a skywalk from a hotel to a parking garage…

Because of that, I haven’t been able to write about so many of the things going on in the city (the parking study, the slots parlor, marijuana dispensaries) — but I hope to.  Soon.

When we last left the Theatre District, we’d gotten a master plan that had little changes from the draft.

As Tracy notes, Councilor Eddy held the item about the Theater District Master Plan last Tuesday.  (You can find more, including some quotes of my public comment, in Nick K’s column [$] from yesterday.)

I will just quote from Tracy’s blog about what could happen and what you should do if you care about the plan:

Councilor Eddy’s hold under privilege only lasts for a week. The Council has to do something with it tomorrow night. At this point, they can do four things:

  1. They can send the report on to Economic Development (the subcommittee that will hear this).
  2. They can hold the report for another week. That would take four councilors to vote in favor of the hold, at this point, as a personal privilege hold can only be done once per item per Councilor.
  3. They can send the report back to administration (as Nicole urged them to do last week) to incorporate public comment (or redo the process so that it begins from public comment).
  4. They can file the item, which is a nice way of saying, they can toss it out.
In order for anything unusual to happen, the Council needs to hear from the public. Thus, should you have any concerns about access to the parking lot (or, indeed, any other aspects of the plan), you should get in touch with the Council
 
Better yet, there is a time for public testimony at the beginning of every Council meeting: attend tomorrow night’s meeting at 7 pm at City Council and voice your concerns.
So — if you can, please contact the Council or speak at tomorrow night’s meeting.  Thanks!