slides: Worcester Coming Under Fire for Downtown Delays
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
“Worcester’s revival proving elusive,” the Boston Globe headlined yesterday’s story. “Ten years ago, Worcester’s downtown was going to hum. A consortium of city officials and investors pledged to turn 21 acres of blight into offices, stores, entertainment sites, and luxury residences. The $565-million project - to be privately and publicly funded - was named CitySquare. Today, CitySquare is still a far-off promise, an unrealized revitalization effort that is all too common in the region’s old mill and manufacturing cities.”
Ouch! It brings back sad memories of when, many years ago, the New York Times referred to Worcester as “the utility closet of the Northeast.”
For more on the status of development efforts for downtown Worcester, see the slides, below.
Downtown Worcester still deserves a lot of criticism. Of course, it’s not like nothing at all is happening there. Far from it, as these key examples demonstrate:
MCPHS University, formerly known as Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, has invested more than $350 million in the downtown since opening its Worcester campus there in 2000. Most recently, last January, MCPHS bought a 3.5-acre site at Lincoln Square, formerly owned and occupied by Morgan Construction Co., for development as student housing.
CSX has completed a $100-million intermodal freight-rail facility along Franklin Street. And, after years of negotiations, the Commonwealth officially accepted from CSX ownership of rail tracks and operations along the Framingham/Worcester line. This enabled the MBTA to increase commuter-rail service between Boston and Worcester, to a total of 31 stops arriving in or departing from Worcester.
WPI is completing a $38-million, 89,000-square-foot residence hall on Faraday Street that will house 258 graduate students.
Saint Vincent Hospital, located in Worcester Medical Center, is completing a $21-million medical office building in the nearby CitySquare development, to house a comprehensive cancer center. The new facility will offer ambulatory medical oncology in addition to radiation oncology services that the hospital currently offers at its Center for Cancer Services, located on Vernon Hill in what remains of the former Saint Vincent Hospital complex.
The Worcester Regional Transit Authority has completed a $14-million, 14,000- square-foot transportation hub at Union Station. The facility is designed to support, encourage and promote connections between the various transportation modes at Union Station.
The DCU Center has completing a $23-million renovation and expansion of the 30-year-old civic-center portion of the complex.
Worcester Business Development Corp. is doing a $26-million renovation of the former Telegram & Gazette building on Franklin Street for Quinsigamond Community College’s 73,000-square-foot Health Care and Workforce Development Center, which will attract about 2,000 students and faculty to downtown.
The WBDC has also acquired and demolished several portions of the former Vocational High School at Lincoln Square, leaving a 116,000-square-foot building with on-site surface parking. WinnDevelopment, a Boston real estate developer, is gutting and renovating the space into 84 units of mixed-income housing, with completion planned for next spring.
Daniel Jalbert and Russell Stewart of SJ Realty, have spent between $3 million and $4 million to renovate two rundown Main Street buildings into 55 units of 300-square-foot, market-rate, loft-style rental apartments for graduate students and young professionals.
But it’s still not enough - not by a long shot. One key measurement is the tax rate for commercial, industrial and open-space property. Worcester’s is $30.85 per $1,000 of assessed valuation – more than 160 percent higher than the business rate in neighboring Shrewsbury.
And, downtown Worcester, with a population of about 25,000 – one-seventh of the citywide total of 181,000 - has a median household income of only $27,000 – three-fifths of the citywide amount of $44,000.
This brings us back to CitySquare, which its developers have hailed since Day One as “largest single public/private development project in Massachusetts history outside of Boston.” The Paul Revere Life Insurance Company, a division of Unum Group, has a long-term lease for a new, 200,000-square-foot office building at CitySquare, which the disability-and-life insurer occupied last January.
Perhaps tellingly, the three-year-old item about the CitySquare groundbreaking is the latest posting on the CitySquare website. This may help explain the headline on yesterday’s Globe story. Worcester’s revival is, in fact, proving to be elusive.
A MassINC report earlier this year laid out the economic challenges that face Worcester’s downtown-development efforts. In so-called Gateway Cities such as Worcester, most new commercial and residential projects don’t live up to expectations because they generally cost more to build than they can charge for rent. It's not because Worcester's vision is not wrong, the report indicates, but instead because the marketplace does not always support such a vision.
Steven Jones-D'Agostino is chief pilot of Best Rate of Climb: Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media and Radio Production. He also produces and hosts The Business Beat on 90.5 WICN, Jazz Plus for New England. Follow him on Twitter @SteveRDAgostino.
Related Slideshow: Worcester’s Remaining Eyesores
The downtown of any vibrant, dynamic city is composed of much more than its buildings. But it is those very structures – and the shape they’re in - that can cause people to be either attracted or repelled. Downtown Worcester has seen much in the way of building construction and restoration in recent years, as noted in the main article. But the buildings shown here are among the key reasons that the downtown of New England’s second-largest city still has a way to go, to be widely regarded as truly revitalized.
Worcester Memorial Aud.
One of the biggest white elephants in downtown is Worcester Memorial Auditorium, which was once called The Aud while it was being managed for the city by Spectacor, the same company that runs the city-owned DCU Center. Built in 1933, as a World War One memorial in the form of a multi-purpose hall, the Auditorium has a 116-foot-wide proscenium and is located at Lincoln Square. Lincoln Square is listed by Preservation Massachusetts as one of the "Most Endangered Historic Resources" in the state because of the three historical buildings in the square that are all empty or underutilized. Currently, the Auditorium is used to house State Trial Court records and a small after-school program.
Former State Courthouse
Another Lincoln Square sad sack is the former State Courthouse, located where Main Street meets the square. Six years ago, the state Superior and District courts were relocated to the new $200-million State Courthouse that had been built a few blocks south, on Main Street. The empty, 180,000-square-foot old courthouse, which occupies two buildings, continues to be in limbo. The building that faces Main Street was listed on Preservation Worcester’s Most Endangered Structures List in 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2012 because of its architectural and historical significance. It was also included in a detailed study of the North Main Street/Lincoln Square area, commissioned by the City of Worcester in 2006. The state and city governments along with “many local organizations and private citizens are intent on finding an adaptive reuse for the building,” according to Preservation Worcester. “However, a suitable new use or a feasible development plan have yet to be identified for this historically and architecturally significant structure.” The state proposes to sell the former courthouse to the city for $1. The city and state would split net proceeds from the sale or lease of the property. The Mass. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the proposed dollar sale today.
Former Worcester Voke Ed
Now facing demolition, the Worcester Boys Trade School, as it was originally called, had in more recent years housed Worcester Vocational High School. In 2006, the replacement for the Voke Ed School, Worcester Technical High School, opened the doors to its new $90-million, 400,000-square-foot campus atop Belmont Hill. Boys Trade School, opened in 1910, was among the first vocational schools in the nation, training young men to be machinists, and, according to its mission, graduating "well informed citizens and good workmen." It was supervised by an independent Board of Trustees, first headed by Milton Higgins of Norton Company, and reporting annually to the Worcester City Council. (After the Council-Manager form of government was adopted in 1949, the Board of Trustees reported to the City Manager.)
Notre Dame des Canadiens
In 2010, the Diocese of Worcester sold the now-vacant Notre Dame des Canadiens Church to the developer of CitySquare for $875,000. All net proceeds from the sale went to Holy Family Parish of Worcester. As with other Catholic churches that have been sold to non-Catholic groups, all consecrated items, including the altar, statuary, baptismal font, and tabernacle, were removed. Many of those items are now being used in either other Catholic churches or the chapel of Notre Dame Cemetery in Worcester. Some items are being kept in storage until an appropriate home is found in another Catholic church. All of the stained-glass windows as well as all saint and other religious figures were removed, with none of them being sold to individuals. As with other consecrated items, they were transferred to and used by Catholic churches. Stained-glass windows that remain in the building include patterned stained glass that does not have religious figures.
Former Paris Cinema
The Capitol Theatre opened in 1926 on Franklin Street as one of downtown Worcester’s movie palaces. In later years it became an adult cinema and the name was changed to Paris Cinema, which was closed down over code violations in 2006. The current owner, The Mayo Group, plans to demolish the building. Mayo Group donated the exterior Paris Cinema sign to Preservation Worcester. In 2012, the sign was sold at auction during Preservation Worcester’s annual salvage event.
Perhaps the most notorious eyesore in downtown Worcester is the Midtown Mall. Long owned by Worcester property owner Dean Marcus,the retail and office building houses an odd collection of businesses and an even odder assortment of customers. The Midtown Mall has bit of retail history on its side, having been created out of the old Woolworths building. For a cinema verite tour of the Midtown Mall, check out this YouTube video. Yes, Marcus has his fair – and even unfair – share of critics. But as he once noted, when Worcester finally gets around to making its downtown attractive to all sorts of people, he’ll be glad to sell his property for the right price.
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