October 29, 2018

Keep the Worcester development rolling

Based on the buzz coming from the successful recruitment of the Red Sox Triple A team, the sustained increase of development activity in the city's downtown and the burgeoning foodie and entertainment scene, the city is hot as a pistol. When compared to the previous pace of development, the Worcester Red Sox deal will move at lightspeed to design, fund and construct a $101-million dollar stadium in three short years. However, long-term success will come from a continued mix of desirable projects making their way into the pipeline, and the sooner the better.

One of the early catalyst of today's hot development market in the heart of the city was the restoration of Worcester's Union Station. Abandoned and left to the elements in the 1970s, the rundown train station was slated for the wrecking ball in the early '90s until the momentum shifted, along with millions in federal transportation dollars, and the building and its iconic towers were restored in 1999. Its current role as a transportation hub came only after two decades of quixotic attempts failed.

This past week saw the opening of the $21-million Blackstone Heritage Corridor Visitor Center in Worcester – a project almost derailed after a debilitating fire in 2010, which has been in the planning stages for 15-plus years. It took a many years of discussion and planning to finally remove large elements of the Worcester Center Galleria and restore Front Street, and a lot of public investment to spur the private dollars fueling the city's downtown development. The successful South Worcester Industrial Park and the redevelopment of the former WRTA headquarters are two more examples of the long journey public-private development can take.

An important factor in keeping Worcester momentum going in the right direction will be the city's role in teeing up a variety of new developments. Chief among those opportunities for spurring new investment are the redevelopment of the Mount Carmel property bordering I-290, along with the creative reuse of the obsolete Worcester Department of Public Works & Parks facilities off Shrewsbury Street. It has long been recognized the DPW would benefit from upgraded facilities, and moving those operations to a new, modern building elsewhere in town will open up key development parcels along one of the city's most popular streets where private developer interest is tangible. The city manager has already indicated an interest in moving this project forward, and seeing some incremental progress soon will send an important message.

While the initial push was around a revitalized downtown, The Hanover Theatre has been at the heart of new investment in the city's Theatre District, just as Crompton Place has been at the center of new investment in the Canal District. Union Station is another beacon attracting other private investments, but lacks the leasable square footage inside the building to make it a proper destination in its own. The city needs to actively encourage additional small scale development surrounding the building and into Washington Square connecting pedestrian pathways of activity to the adjoining downtown, Canal District and Shrewsbury Street corridor. That connective tissue weaving key developments together requires great care, and must be done with the light hand of government partnering with local entrepreneurs. While there is a lot on the plate of Worcester's development team, now is not the time to sit back and celebrate. Pushing to bring more projects forward to contribute to stronger neighborhoods and a more robust tax base is key. Let's strike when the iron is hot and keep the momentum going.


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