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.”
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.
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