April 15, 2019

WRA orders Midtown Mall owner to submit redevelopment plan

Photo | Brad Kane
The area around the Midtown Mall sees foot traffic from the nearby businesses, apartments and government offices.

The Worcester Redevelopment Authority is giving the Midtown Mall owner 30 days to submit a detailed written plan on his plans to rehabilitate the Front Street buildings to avoid an eminent domain taking of his property.

Owner Dean Marcus, an elderly man, said at a public hearing earlier this month he'll do the best he can to submit a written plan.

He pointed out many cosmetic repairs are current underway to the building the WRA has called underutilized and in dire need of a complete makeover. City officials have said Marcus has been reluctant to work with the city to redevelop the property.

If Marcus fails to submit the plan or it isn't detailed enough to the WRA's liking, the city's redevelopment agency will seek an eminent domain taking, said Michael Angelini, WRA board member, who has been one of the more aggressive voices pushing for action at the property.

The mall, consisting of two buildings along Front Street, has been a target of the city as its vision for a rehabilitated downtown comes to fruition.

The property has had 21 code violations since 2014. Four of those ended up in court, said WRA Chief Development Officer Michael Traynor.

Violations include infestations, overflowing trash, water leaks, mold, graffiti, faulty emergency lighting and fire safety hazards.

The drain on the police department has been even worse, with police responding to 602 calls at the address in the last 10 years, Traynor said.

Concern for businesses

The majority of the City Council has agreed the building needs significant work, but councilors have expressed concern for the potential displacement of the businesses in the building, many of which are small, minority-owned retail businesses.

Councilors Candy Mero-Carlson, Khrystian King and Sarai Rivera brought those concerns to the WRA. Mall tenants spoke about the space allowing them to jump start their businesses because of the affordable rent Marcus offers.

However, figures central to Worcester's downtown redevelopment push spoke in favor of taking significant action at the building.

Chip Norton, owner of the Mercantile Center abutting the Midtown mall, said he's invested close to $90 million in his building.

"They're a neighbor of ours, and we'd like to see the building redeveloped," Norton said.

Norton said when he purchased the Mercantile Center, he was able to work with existing tenants to keep them in the building at reasonable rates.

Craig Blais, president and CEO of the Worcester Business Development Corp., which owns several properties downtown, said he feels bad for the tenants of the mall not because of the eminent domain process, but because of the code violations and condition of the building.

"When you're walking by that property, you do not feel safe," Blais said.


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