Well here we are, at the end of the summer. This sumer I worked in Boston at a large architecture firm, but I commuted from Worcester, and after talking to my Co-workers I realized that very few people in Boston know anything about Worcester. Most people think its a crime ridden down on its luck place and they were shocked I lived in the city (but lets be real, I live in Tatnuck, which isn’t even close to living in the real Worcester) However they may be right, lately Worcester has been down on its luck, for years the city has struggled to get things together, and lately development has largely stopped. I just spent three hours walking around downtown and these were my thoughts on the city as a whole:
CitySquare: Worcester had the chance to fix possibly the largest urban renewal mistake in New England and its just creating a giant suburban office park in the center of the city. The Unum Building is okay at best, but lets face it, they connected the building to the existing parking garage which should have been torn down with the rest of the mall, it creates a situation where people park their car, then walk straight into the building, never interacting with the city, and at the end of the day they get back in their car and go home, never stopping anywhere downtown. In the first floor of the Unum Building there is what I assume was supposed to be a retail front, and now it is Tufts Health Insurance, it gives nothing to the street, someone should have pushed for a Dunkins/Starbucks/Local Coffee House, honestly I would have rather seen it empty because if CitySquare ever rectifies its bland cityscape it will be hard to change from the Tufts space to something better.
Then there is the St. Vincent Cancer Center, It was nice that St. Vincent was trying to help revitalize downtown but that building does nothing for the street, it is worse than the Unum Building, and it is only two floors smack dab in the middle of downtown. I believe that it has the possibility to be made taller by two floors or so in the future, but I doubt it happens. The architecture of the Cancer Center is a cancer to the city. The brick matches the hulkling hospital building two blocks away, and looks dated already, but it just opened less than two years ago. Then there is the fact that the MLK Boulevard Side has no door, but rather a giant pit surrounded by a home depot fence, nothing says welcome to downtown like a giant hole and no doors to the street. Also the Front Street side has no windows because it negotiates the hill creating a blank wall. I wish that the building was one more floor higher, and all the medical services were on the second and third floor with retail on the ground floor, but alas this is another building connected to a garage where no one but patients can appreciate. In all honesty I appreciate the cancer center but I wish it was built into the existing hospital because it gives nothing to CitySquare. (See Below)
Then there is the issue of the two other gaping holes in CitySquare. I’m glad the city is taking its time waiting for the proper development to come along, but it seems as if they are trying to put a 350 unit apartment building on the larger lot and not make something higher than three or floor floors. I personally think the city should try to get a high-rise built, thereby being able to fit more units in over time, because the city needs to understand that we need more people downtown before other things can change. We need a mix of income, not just lower end housing and students downtown for things to change.
I think that the city has thrown the plan that Arrowstreet came up with in the garbage and is just taking whatever is coming along for development. Recently they just approved a change to put the park on the not yet built eaton place instead of the intersection of Mercantile Street and Front Street. The original plan was better because it would have created a plaza of sorts instead of creating what will become a neglected park in the shade of an aging garage and housing building that will no doubt collect trash. Honestly no park would be best because it will give people reason to relax on the common.
I want to know what is going on with the Renaissance by Marriott. Is it under construction? What will it look like? It seems like construction is progressing somewhat, but I have not seen any renderings. How tall will it be? What are the amenities? Will there be space for the so crucial ground floor retail?
Finally, can we reload the tower and the Peoples United Bank Building? The Peoples United has a botched cladding cover up job where it was disconnected from the mall, and they should just clad the whole thing in those alucobond panels. The tower still bears the “M” from mechanics bank which hasn’t been in business from my entire life, and the concrete looks old, I think it could be reclad in a more modern manner if funds allowed, I’m also not partial to the giant T&G signage on the top, and lately some of the lights have been out, I think that needs to be addressed, maybe a more sleek logo? I liked the minimal TG neon sign on the old building, maybe a revamp of that?
Worcester Plaza & The SkyMark: Worcester’s two tallest buildings are looking old. The glazing on the Worcester Plaza tower is aging terribly and is even cracked and held in place with duct tape it appears, is there a way to reload the building without removing tenants? I think a sleeker newer glass with skinnier metal edges would be great for the city, as well as accent lighting, it used to light up at night with fluorescent lights, but they haven’t done that in ages, I think if it was reload it could get an LED system installed that could function like the Cira Center in Philadelphia, and that would go a long way to make downtown look more modern. Also the SkyMark tower looks terrible, I think it should be closed, renovated, and reopened. The windows are too small, there is no street interaction, and it has aged badly (but they light the top at night which is a plus) but this needs an overhaul.
Theatre District: The poor Hanover theatre is all by itself in Federal Square, nothing has ever materialized in that neighborhood. The Telegram and Gazette building renovation may help. My only gripe with the T&G building is the desecration of the facade, this was a huge mistake, and I will never forgive QCC For that, the recladding is going to look terrible, if they turn the neighborhood around I will forgive them. In the earlier plan they talked about activating alleyways around the building, and I think they should look into what Cleveland did with East 4th Street in terms of how to activate the spaces around their buildings and connect to the Hanover.
The Common: After what seems like three iterations of Worcester Common in my short 21 year existence the city has created an okay park, and are utilizing it well, the Ice Skating Rink is fun, I use it at least once a winter, and the movies seem like a good draw as well as the lunch concerts, however my biggest issue is the new granite sign on the corner of the common facing CitySquare, it is basically a wall that blocks people from entering the common. I do not know who approved of it, but I do not think it was necessary, if you do not know that this is Worcester Common then I don’t think that a baby berlin wall stating WORCESTER COMMON is going to help. The sign is going to be a magnet for trash to pile up in the back of the curve, probably a spray paint magnet, and all around an eyesore as it is a different style than the rest of Worcester Common. It would have been better if you could at least pass through it at the middle as to not have to walk around it, it creates poor circulation. Can we get rid of it? or move it to create a semi circle around the Civil War Memorial just behind it’s current location? Other than that the Common Looks Great. The only other thing I was thinking is that the city needs a permanent building for the skating rink that could also be a cafe. Something like the one at the rink at Kendall Square in Cambridge, or the pavilion at Logan Square in Philadelphia. (See Below)
Water Street / Kelley Square and the Canal District: This is a weird and interesting neighborhood. It has the bones to be a great historic area that could be like downtown Lowell with its mills, however the city is neglecting it. Either build the Canal or don’t, I heard numbers ranging from the 60-100 million dollar range to just build out the canal, then just see if private development will take over the rest. I say sink the money now or just forget the canal idea all together. The best part of the Canal District is the narrow streets and small blocks that promote walkability, some great infill buildings and cleaned up sidewalks would do wonders in this neighborhood.
Visitors Center / Historic Museum: Years ago the city wanted to build a visitors center in an old mill near 146 and relocate the historic museum from Elm Street. Well that building burned to the ground, and is no longer there, so I think the city should explore the idea of making that visitors center and new historic museum in Kelley Square, in the old Salty Dog Saloon Site.(See Image Below) I remember an article from last summer where it was discovered that the upper floors of that building housed a silent movie house. This building would be a great base camp for visitors to explore the city, Kelley Square in my opinion is a great gateway into the city, it is near 290, has access to downtown via Green Street and Madison Street, has great potential to develop more with all the open lots on Madison/Washignton/Green/and Harding Street, and is the center of a neighborhood in a slow transition to a bar and cultural district on Water and Millbury Street. This building could house a welcome center on the lower level, and the historic museum could overlap the lower level and spill into the mill next door. Combine this with the carriage tours there already, the location of a farmers market across the street, some great bars and clubs, a great location near the highway and this could be a catalyst for the redevelopment of this blighted neighborhood. I can even see a possible historic house museum that is a three decker that could function like the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side of NYC, maybe they could partner with them to teach about immigration and create housing awareness. This museum could be modeled after three different eras, one for each floor, and people could learn about Worcester/New England’s distinctive tenement housing style. It just makes sense to have a visitors center near a place where people can actually visit the city, take in restaurants/clubs/galleries and learn about it, not just visit a rest stop just outside downtown, only accessible by car across from a litter strewn Wal-Mart Parking Lot.
Union Station/Washington Square: Union Station is our lifeline. Worcester needs to learn that it cannot stand alone from Boston anymore, we are now a part of greater Boston, and we should be trying to benefit from the fact that Boston is growing too expensive for younger students with debt, and Worcester should be marketing itself as an alternative place that offers urban living with access to Boston at a much lower cost. In a perfect world the MBTA would create a true high speed train that is electrified via overhead catenary wires and runs on electric trains instead of diesel, at a higher speed and creates a commute of less than 60 minutes from Union Station to South Station. This area should be booming, but its not, instead what we have are weed covered lots surrounding a spectacular train station. I hate to say it but Washignton Square should go, it should be made into a four way intersection that creates larger pieces of land to sell for development. As it is the pieces of land are too small to develop profitably in the Worcester development market. (See Example, that plot of land is not developable at all) Imagine some sleek 4-10 story apartment buildings that allow people to walk to the train station and slide right into Boston, or better yet walk to work in downtown Worcester.
Union Station is one of the triumphs of downtown Worcester for this century, it was brought back from the dead to become a functioning train station, and later an intermodal hub for the city, the headquarters of the WRTA being there is excellent as well as the location of the long distance buses. The only thing we need now is to move the taxi cabs from under the P&W bridge as they clog the roads around the station there. Also we need to focus on getting something into the spaces of the Union Station Garage, but I think that will come with the development of the Osgood Bradley building into apartments. However I just want to make a quick comment on those apartments, its great to have students downtown, but I think we should try and veer away from making all housing downtown dorms basically, we need working professionals as well, as students are only there a few months a year and can be rough on buildings. Please focus on market rate apartments for people outside the ages of 18-22 as we need people who will actually stay in the city years later.
Elm Park: What is happening to this poor park? it is being destroyed by a cheap restoration. The sinking streetlights that were just put in, the poorly maintained grass, and the inappropriate buildings that were left standing. This was a park to see and be seen, and now it is a mish-mash of poor planning, the paved paths are untrue to the Olmstead design, as well as the bad buildings that have been there for years. I am not a fan of the cheap brick edging surrounding the park, and WHY IS THE SIDEWALK ASPHALT? It NEEDS to be concrete, no city should use asphalt to pave a sidewalk EVER, it looks cheap and ages badly. Id rater see Elm Park neglected then see this poor renovation finished. Also the city needs to go after the groundskeeper as he ruins the grass by driving around the park in a truck, I have seen him try to pick up trash from his truck with a squeeze gripper. Also he does not trim the weeds after cutting the grass, and piles up trash near the stone gates, it looks terrible, and he is not doing his job, or his job needs to include maintenance of buildings and the benches. Either this man needs to get his act together or get a new job because he is not helping the park one bit.
Residential Corridors: I think that the city should also look into creating corridors that allow for high density residential mixed use development. That means ground floor retail and not parking lots out in the front of the building. They should include such streets as Park Ave, Chandler Street, Shrewsbury Street, Grafton Street, Hamilton Street, Highland Street, Salisbury Street from the Art Museum to Park Ave, and other main streets, the city needs to allow for 4-6 story apartment buildings to be built along these streets to facilitate new growth. (See Diagram Below Showing Corridors)
Lighting: Worcester is too dark, we need more streetlights, and they need to better spaced. People are afraid of the dark, combine that with the fear of people lurking in the shadows and you quickly see why people do not walk around at night. Also we need to get away from the sodium lights as they are not a good light quality for making people feel safe. Also I am all for the older style lights, but I think we should experiment with more modern fixtures that say, “Hey, we are coming into the future, not looking to the past”
Two Cities: I’ll say it, Worcester is not a real city, sure it has 183,000+ People, but they are spread out across 40 Square Miles, the same amount of land area as Boston which has 640,000 people, and many in Worcester live in single family homes spread out in the hills. We should think about two separate cities and treat two places differently. There is the core of the city, which is the area east of Park Ave, and West of the tops of Bell Hill, Grafton Hill and Vernon Hill, and there are the outer hinterlands of the city. The core compromises the poorest parts of the city, namely the three deckers that line the hills, and the tenements of Main South and contains the Central Business District. The outer hinterlands are the ares that are mostly the single family homes, this includes the wealthiest parts of the city, the neighborhoods are more stable, and are not in dire need of intervention, just maintenance. What I’m proposing is the city works on densifying and cleaning up the core, while just maintaining and restricting development outside the core. They can promote renovation and the little neighborhood centers outside the core, but the city should work on raising the overall quality if life in the core and bringing a more mixed income into the core. I do not believe in separating the classes of the city, but having people coexist side by side. (See Diagram of what I Define as the Core in Red Below)
Worcester is lacking basic maintenance on a general level, cracked an raised sidewalks, neglected parks, poor roads, unpaved roads, run down schools and public buildings, and the core is really suffering.
Precedents: The city should look at and partner with cities in similar positions to us, like Philadelphia, Clevland, Detroit, Buffalo, and for a city closer to our size: Providence. We can learn from them, see what they did historically, how they are coping with industrial collapse, and how they are moving forward. Granted these cities are larger and have much worse problems than us they can still teach us how to progress.
Retail Targeting: I think a good idea would be for Worcester to explore what type of retailers are looking to expand into Cities. I think downtown would do well with some lower cost, non luxury retailers like Marshalls, TJMaxx, H&M, UniQlo, and Primark which is opening its first store in North America in Boston next year, and maybe even a CityTarget. All these stores are more edgier and will cater to the younger population of students we have and will not be too fancy like a Macys or Lord and Taylor would be. Also we need a market downtown, and with the sale of the old Worcester Market I think we should explore the idea of making it back into a market much like the West Side Market in Cleveland, which is amazing.
City Government: In my twenty-one year existence I do not think that the city government has ever been urban friendly. They do not want Worcester to be a city, and think with a small town mentality. What we have is a dense downtown core, but a sprawling outer city that is basically the suburbs in the city, we need to think about the center city. We cannot be afraid of new architectural styles. We cannot be afraid of walking more than half a block downtown because we could not find a free parking space. We cannot be afraid of paying to park. We cannot be afraid of the bus system and taxis. We cannot be afraid of what is a relatively low crime rate for a city our size, if we have more people out on the streets then there are more eyes for safety.
I think the city government should make good urbanism a key element to the city, they should have a clear and concise master plan that does not change like the one we have does now. If you go into city hall you can see an old model of downtown and it looks nothing like Worcester today, Worcester today is worse off than the model envisioned. We need to get people excited about planning in the city. I think every project, large or small should be on view on something so simple as a foamcoare board and on display in city hall so the people of Worcester know what is going on. It would do wonders for people that have no idea of development plans in the city, I had no idea the sidewalks in Tatnuck were being redone, and it would be great if I could go to city hall and see a board showing something so simple as a site plan of the project, the cost, the timeline, and maybe a rendering. It would bring people to city hall, keep them in the loop, and it wouldn’t cost all that much to make.
The people in the city lack a clear vision of what the city could be, the focus on band-aid surface solutions to internal hemorrhaging. Worcester at its core is strong, but it is failing, and no one wants to take the reigns and lead Worcester forward into a new urbanism, away from three deckers and into towering apartment buildings downtown, if we can make life for our people better then our people will be better. Better housing and better public spaces make for happier and better behaved people. We need to stop worrying about what the city looks like and just go forward to reunite a torn urban fabric and a divided city where the wealthier people just look at the decay, talk about bad schools, and plan on moving away. Finally, I also think that the city government has this vision that one day we are going to wake up and Worcester is going to be the city that it was in the early 20th Century. It is not going to be that city, we need to forge a new future, for ourselves, not waste time staring at old pictures of the past, or we will never progress.