The Worcester disconnect

Worcester’s downtown is full of wide open spaces where homes and offices and restaurants are supposed to go. Most haven’t appeared yet. Today’s Globe digs into the sizable disconnect between the city’s grand plan of rebuilding its downtown, and the unfinished state those plans are in. There’s less said about why that disconnect exists, but it’s pretty simple: The city finds itself on the wrong side of a math equation.

When it first popped up a decade ago, Worcester’s plan to rebuild its downtown was the largest public-private partnership in Massachusetts. The $565 million plan involved razing a failed downtown mall, and replacing the complex with a new grid of streets, and 2.1 million square feet of new or revitalized offices, apartments and condominiums, and retail space.

   

The vision was straightforward — replacing a 1970s-vintage urban renewal throwback with an urban-scale, mixed-use downtown, dubbed CitySquare. The execution has been slowly realized, though. The project’s first developer sold most of the project at the depths of the recent recession. Its new developer has demolished the old mall, built new streets, and opened a pair of new commercial properties. But the area’s evolution has remained slow. “What’s missing in the downtown is something to do,” a nonprofit developer unconnected with CitySquare tells the Globe today. “Right now, there are few reasons for people to leave their offices.” 

Custom-built commercial space in downtown Worcester remains a tough sell, because the supply of vacant office space around the city is both plentiful and cheap. That dynamic isn’t likely to change anytime soon.  

Housing should be a more promising development play. The CitySquare development site is blocks from Union Station. Cities like Worcester are a promising release valve in a region that has long struggled with unaffordable housing prices. But right now, the numbers on downtown housing in Worcester don’t add up. And without a significant infusion of new residents downtown, the new restaurants and shops the city is hoping to see won’t appear. Downtown businesses need downtown customers, but those customers haven’t arrived because banks aren’t in the business of writing construction loans on projects that can’t make money. 

A MassINC report from earlier this year laid out the kind of economics Worcester’s downtown redevelopment bid is up against. Across the Gateway Cities, most new commercial and residential projects don’t pencil out. They generally cost far more to build than they’re able to generate in rent. This isn’t because the vision in Worcester is wrong. It’s because the market’s math doesn’t always support that vision.

   

–PAUL MCMORROW

   

BEACON HILL

The number of homeless families paid by the state to live in motels has soared to a record high, increasing by 66 percent statewide since May.

A report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation indicates pension debt is soaring for cities and towns, the Salem News reports.

State lawmakers are going to hold hearing on bills dealing with access to public records, including one that aims to lower the cost of obtaining records, the Associated Press reports.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

School custodians in Lawrence racked up overtime totaling $94,000 this past summer during a high school construction project, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

Middleboro officials, already under fire for transferring public land to a private organization in order to save a 50-year-old cross on the property, are coming under further scrutiny for a $5,000 grant from the town’s community preservation funds to help restore a church organ.

CASINOS

Fisticuffs break out at a Revere casino rally.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

Senate leaders appeared close to a deal yesterday to end the federal government shutdown, but its fate in the House remained uncertain.

Two Democratic congressmen have filed a bill to make the Apollo landing sites on the moon part of the National Historic Parks system, though it is unclear how they would be affected by future government shutdowns.

Next City looks at the fight to get Congress invested in post-industrial cities.

ELECTIONS

Voters in the Fifth Congressional District go to the polls today to select Democrat and Republican candidates for Congress, the Associated Press reports.

Boston mayoral finalists John Connolly and Marty Walsh will square off tonight in the first of three televised debates. Union muscle is getting flexed on behalf of Walsh, the Globe reports. Walsh lines up support from progressive suburbanites he works with in the House. The Herald looks at the emergence of Connolly’s wife and Walsh’s girlfriend in the campaign.

The Eagle-Tribune raises ethical questions about the ties between incumbent Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua and three of his biggest backers, including his campaign manager.

Keller@Large has a sit-down with Somerville mayor Joseph Curtatone, who talks about his dalliance with a run for the governor’s office.

MARATHON BOMBINGS

Six months after the Boston Marathon bombings, first responders are still dealing with the emotional trauma of what they saw and dealt with.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The federal government shutdown that closed the Cape Cod National Seashore is having an effect on everything from businesses dependent on tourists to homeowners trying to sell their houses who are unable to get a needed certificate from the government if their property lies within the protected seashore.

University of Chicago professor Eugene Fama, who grew up in Medford and Malden, was one of three scholars named this weekend as co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in economics.

High-priced residential towers are sprouting like weeds in Boston, but not so housing for the middle class, writes Paul McMorrow.

EDUCATION

Eduwonk has a thoughtful take on the rush to demonize various players and organizations in the education world.

HEALTH CARE

Paul Levy takes on medical schools where he says lax conflict of interest rules that allow faculty members to delve into research and development are contributing to the spiraling costs of health care.   

Some computer experts are questioning the security of the new federal government health care website.

RELIGION

Conservative Catholics are beginning to question the pope because they are concerned about a potential turn away from strict orthodoxy.

TRANSPORTATION

The success of the inaugural season of the Cape Flyer train, which ended yesterday, has officials thinking of adding a stop in Bourne and possibly a Thursday night train out of South Station next summer.

After a nearly 17-year hiatus, drivers in western Massachusetts are once again paying tolls on the Mass Pike beginning today, part of the transportation bill passed earlier in the summer by the Legislature.

State Police released a video of a near-miss in the O’Neill Tunnel when a driver almost crashed into a cruiser with its lights on.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

A Northboro priest has been removed from his parish after Worcester diocesan officials alleged he embezzled more than $220,000 in church funds to fuel a gambling habit.   

MEDIA

Governing examines the growing State House reporting void.

The New York Times launches an international version of its product.