Thursday, January 24, 2013

Downtown redevelopment.

Here's my wishlist for our future downtown, with City Square coming to life and the proposals being floated for the Theater District.

To attract anyone downtown and transform downtown Worcester into an 18 hour area, we need the following:

-Better transportation systems: Clearly marked bike lanes, longer bus hours, clean and dependable cabs, and a trolley bus system and summer pedi-cabs that link marketed areas (Theater District, Canal District, Shrewsbury Street).

-Integrated, affordable parking systems: We need clearly marked multiple parking hubs near walkable areas, and no more destruction of buildings for surface lots. Imagine if all the surface lots between Mechanics Hall, the DCU Center, and the new Courthouse weren't there, or the surface lots next to the RMV and across Madison Street on Southbridge Street. We could easily equal the capacity of all those surface lots with a parking garages similar to the one across from the Hanover Theater, and free up the rest of those areas for development. Portsmouth, NH has plenty of cheap parking on the fringes of their downtown, leaving the rest for residential needs and creating a contiguous, pleasant walking experience.

-Memorable architecture: Re-purposed existing storefronts, restored historic buildings, mixed use buildings, and open areas/greenspace/park benches for community use. Please, no more concrete bunkers or pre-fab soulless glass towers. It's too late for the new bus hub or the Cancer center, but a little imagination goes a long way: the new entrance of the Library fixed a disastrously ugly building.

-More green space: Encourage the development of micro-parks, community gardens, street island plantings, and sidewalk plantings. Green space could be multi-purpose, used as a Farmer's Market, outdoor concert venue, skate park, and food truck area. Imagine what can be done with the plaza in front of City Hall now that bus traffic is moving to Union Station!

-Recreational opportunities: The new ice rink on the Common is a fantastic idea. We also need a skate park, unless we want to officially turn the DCU triangle or the old Courthouse into what it already is. I like the idea of the hockey rinks, but I dislike the idea of building rinks on public land for the benefit of private colleges first, then (maybe!?) the public second. There are better uses for the McGrath lot, unless the WBDC is willing to pay market price for the lot. Hockey rinks could move just down the street to Southbridge Street, or over to Madison Street (assuming we don't get a boutique hotel/gaming parlor). More soccer fields, more spray parks, and we definitely need a dog park!

-Locally owned food, coffee, and spirits: If we have street level cafes, bars, sandwich shops, delis and restaurants, people will come. We need some local character and flavor.

-Food options beyond 7-11 and Honey Farms: In other words, grocery stores within walking distance of all the proposed new downtown housing. The grocery store doesn't need to be huge- two small places similar to Banana Joe's on West Boylston Street would be wonderful. A Trader Joe's or a Whole Foods over at the abandoned lots on Madison Street would be fantastic. We also have the old Farmer's Market on the corner of Main and Madison being used as office space, which is a shame.

-Food trucks and street vendors. Look at the recent success of the lunchtime summer concerts on the Common and the new ice oval. Part of that success has been due to the presence of actual food vendors, and things to do and see. Imagine if Movies on the Common had some food trucks also!

-More afternoon/evening/weekend destinations: We already have the Hanover Theater, Mechanics Hall, and the Library. Imagine if we also had a bookstore, more art galleries, a small movie theater (bring back the Bijou!) and the proposed black box theater?

-More festivals downtown: Look at the success of stART on the Street, the Latin Festival, and begrudgingly, the Summer Nationals. More people downtown means more attention, and less negativity. The ice rink and Movies on the Common have been successful, despite our innate cynicism. Let's keep expanding!

-Aggressive enforcement of city ordinances: We have too many decaying buildings and abandoned lots. At the very least, we should transform abandoned lots into local gardens (remember Mayor O'Brien's proposal?). We have far too many deadbeat property owners in this city willing to sit on decaying lots and buildings in the hope that something better will come their way, and until then, it's a write off. Nothing better will come our way unless we improve what we have.

-Realistic market pricing for housing and businesses: The city and local realtors need to be a bit more practical in creating incentives for small businesses to flourish downtown. It seems as if local realtors are happy with the churn and burn route to occupancy, which leads to empty storefronts that were once home to the kind of businesses that don't bring in visitors. The city could help by easing the permitting/inspection system, which is difficult to navigate. Perhaps the proposed business incubators at Gateway Park and the T&G building could help. Remember the redevelopment of the Berwick Building and the prices they wanted? How full is that building now?

-Develop what we have in place on Major Taylor Boulevard, Chandler Street and Pleasant Street extending out from Main Street. That area has some wonderful buildings, and great potential to easily redevelop areas that has been underutilized. Take a look at what happened in Green Island. That could happen there!

-Lastly, we need to respect ourselves. Far too often it seems as if we try so hard to attract the right sort of investors, and end up with the wrong sort after too many promises, TIFs, and deals from the city. We are the second largest city in New England, and have a lot to build upon here in Worcester. We are going in the right direction, but development shouldn't come at the cost of what we already have, and more importantly, cost us more than we get back. No more giveaways of public land, no more sweetheart deals without enforcement mechanisms, and no privatization of services. Also, no more coddling of the property speculators who have allowed Worcester to deteriorate over the past 40 years. Responsible ownership creates a beautiful city.

I spent Columbus Day weekend in Troy, NY, a city about one third of the size of Worcester, but very similar in history. Both cities are former mill towns with plenty of old housing/brick factories, both are county seats, and both have a sizable college population. We even used to have National League baseball teams back in the 1880's. The one main difference is the presence of the Erie Canal and the Hudson River right next to Troy's downtown, an advantage we don't have. Yet downtown Troy, despite its image, despite its crime, has a downtown area that was walkable, mixed use, and interesting. It wasn't perfect, but there were plenty of places that had exactly what we need in Worcester, if we can build upon what we have.

No comments: