Urban ReRenewal

Urban ReRenewal

 

Growth & Development Extra 2006

New and restored streets will reattach the
landmark Union Station with downtown Worcester.

At night, Worcester’s Shrewsbury Street is alive with restaurant-goers and revelers, frequently including residents of a former biscuit factory that has been transformed into upscale lofts with 12-foot ceilings, exposed ductwork, and refurbished red brick walls. A decade ago, when the state’s second-largest city was in the economic doldrums, this main drag of the city’s Italian-American neighborhood on the East Side stayed remarkably vibrant, considering it is cut off from downtown by railroad tracks, a wide, urban renewal-era traffic artery, and a mostly empty parking garage. Today, the strip is booming and, for the first time in decades, there’s reason to think the same can soon be said about the rest of this regional hub, which is pinning its hopes on an ambitious makeover of its downtown and other large-scale redevelopment projects around the city.

Though Worcester has long been seen as an economic backwater with ineffective and fractious political leadership, the city’s leaders are more unified than at any time in memory, focused on the repopulation of downtown.

“This is the most optimism I’ve seen in the city in years,” says David Forsberg, president of the Worcester Business Development Corp., which shepherded some big downtown projects in the 1990s, such as a new convention center and a new hospital, that helped lay the groundwork for current comeback attempts.

Young Park, the Boston architect and developer who is poised to invest $470 million in the city with his massive CitySquare downtown redevelopment project, is convinced that Worcester has reached a critical stage. Park thinks an influx of new residents and capital has created a higher energy level in the city. Worcester is now ready to shed the decades-old inferiority complex that has kept it in the shadow of Boston, Park says. He sees his project as the catalyst that will push the city over the finish line.

“CitySquare will be the ultimate tipping point in something that is already happening,” he says. “People are rediscovering Worcester as a place to make some money, to be entertained, to live. The money is there. What’s missing is the magnet.”

If Worcester is on its way back, 44 miles northeast on I-495 there is Lowell, which is already well along the road to recovery, probably three or four years ahead of Worcester.

Claimed to be the birthplace of the industrial revolution in the US and home to famously well-preserved mill buildings, Lowell is reinventing itself with a vengeance. In the last four years, the state’s fourth largest city has exploded with new loft apartments in formerly vacant or under-used red brick warehouses and factories clustered downtown. The condo boom has turned this old industrial center into an artsy, Soho-style neighborhood practically overnight.

Developer Young Park calls Worcester’s
CitySquare “the ultimate tipping point.”

The US Census Bureau estimated Lowell’s 2004 population at 103,000, down slightly from the 2000 count of 105,000, which was a 2 percent increase from 1990. But that estimate may quickly become obsolete, thanks to a spurt of growth downtown. By the end of this year, that area is expected to have more than 2,000 new residents in renovated lofts, eager to patronize the two dozen cafes and shops that have sprung up nearby. And just blocks away, Cambodian and Vietnamese entrepreneurs and homeowners are revitalizing the Acre neighborhood, once the city’s most depressed section.

“It’s been far more successful than we could have expected,” says James Cook, executive director of the Lowell Economic Development Fund, a bank and city government consortium that has fed the downtown rebirth with low-cost loans for risky startup businesses.

Brian Connors, Lowell’s economic development director, is a living advertisement for the lifestyle that he and the other young people running the city these days are promoting. It takes him about 10 minutes to stroll from his canal-side condominium across town to his office. Along the way, he picks up a latte at the Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus, an Internet-ready cafe that turns into an intimate performance space once the sun goes down.

In the evening, Connors likes to walk to LeLacheur Park to take in a minor-league baseball game, or to the new Tsongas Arena or Lowell Memorial Auditorium for a concert, or the Merrimack Repertory Theater for a play. If he feels like a trip to the big city, the commuter rail station is a shuttle bus hop away. The train to Boston takes 40 minutes.

“People want to be able to walk to work, go out to eat at night near where they live, and then go to the theater, a concert or a ballgame,” Connors says. “They can do all that now. It’s an exciting time to be here.”

COMEBACK CITIES

For both Worcester and Lowell, these are only the latest in a long string of comebacks, made at least a bit easier by the fact that these two urban centers on the periphery of the Boston megalopolis never hit bottom. As Springfield, Lawrence, New Bedford, and Fall River descended into nearly hopeless abysses of poverty, crime, and white flight during the economic upheavals of the last few decades, Worcester and Lowell managed to hold onto a good chunk of their middle class. They are still confronting serious, if not intractable, urban problems, such as gang violence, homelessness, and drug trafficking. But municipal officials are banking on growth in commercial tax revenues from new development to upgrade their police departments and schools.

Questions also persist about how enduring the current rebound will be. While Lowell has succeeded in re-seeding its core with residents and with places for them to spend money, efforts to bring office workers downtown have not been as successful. And its canals, while scenic from a distance, are still grimy upon closer inspection; cleanup has been hampered by the complexity of who owns what along the riverbanks and waterways.

Still, in Lowell’s white-hot real estate market, two-bedroom lofts have broken the $400,000 barrier, and a few exclusive penthouses are expected to go for more than $1 million this year. Developers, who have taken advantage of historic preservation tax breaks, can’t keep up with the demand. After the conversion of nearly 1,000 units, living space in the old mill buildings is almost gone.

 John DeAngelis, a developer who has artfully renovated four buildings in Lowell since 2002—creating 51 custom residential units and a dozen commercial spaces—says the dream of a Lowell renaissance is already a reality. Now it’s time to bring a major supermarket or upscale grocer such as Trader Joe’s downtown, he says.

“There are only a handful of buildings left,” says DeAngelis. “Now the turn is going to be on commercial and retail. We need it so badly.” With downtown facing build-out, the city now is looking to a once-contaminated industrial site close to the train station, where planners envision the Hamilton Canal District rising over the next decade. As a “transit- oriented-development” project, the $300 million complex is seen as likely to attract state funding.

Meanwhile, in Worcester, property values have more than doubled in the past decade, driven by migration from eastern Massachusetts that picked up steam in the last few years. The influx of newcomers has helped drive up Worcester’s population more than 2 percent since 2000, to 176,000, while Boston lost 3.6 percent of its residents during the same period, according to the Census Bureau.

As the Boston-area affluents have moved in, they have brought with them service businesses ranging from Starbucks and Home Depot and Lowe’s to grocery chains that have sprouted half a dozen new supermarkets around the city in the last five years. Developers have feverishly built new private homes and converted old three-deckers into condos. They have turned old brick industrial edifices into urbane but (relatively) affordable loft homes, Lowell-style—although, unlike Lowell, these factory-building condos are not concentrated downtown, but rather scattered in outlying neighborhoods, which are also showing new signs of life. The Worcester land rush has even attracted speculators, who are buying up properties in places like Main South, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“What is going on is a demographic shift from eastern Massachusetts,” Boston businessman Park says. “And central Massachusetts is in a very good position to capitalize on this shift.”

The designers of Park’s mostly privately financed $563 million CitySquare project are promising to restore the heart of the city, which was ripped apart by the disastrous urban renewal schemes of the 1960s and ’70s. New and restored streets will reattach downtown with Shrewsbury Street’s restaurant row and the commuter rail station.

Work is expected to begin soon on the first part of the eight-year undertaking to create a pedestrian-friendly, Harvard Square-like complex, with 150 market rate condos, two new office towers, and shops and restaurants to be done within three years.

Executives of Park’s Berkeley Investments say they are placing a bet on Worcester in part because they were convinced that city leaders truly want change. They were also attracted by the 21-acre parcel’s location, a five-minute walk from the city’s transit hub, Union Station—a white Beaux Arts landmark renovated in the ’90s with $32 million in federal money.

“Worcester has a new mentality. They’re starting to become very proud, and a lot of people are coming in at just the right time,” says Barbara Smith-Bacon, a Berkeley vice president and project manager for CitySquare. “It’s a big city. It should have its own identity.”

To be sure, Worcester faces considerable challenges in making its urban-revival dream come true. CitySquare, which will be built in three phases, is somewhat speculative. Each part depends on the success of the phase that comes before it. If the economy tanks, the project could stall—or fall apart, critics warn. And commuter rail service to Boston, reinstated in the 1990s, has ramped up only from minimal to fitful: The CSX freight conglomerate owns the tracks between Worcester and Framingham and has blocked attempts to expand passenger service, now 10 round trips a day. But Worcester city manager Michael O’Brien says he is confident the city can overcome this obstacle, and state transportation officials have recently expressed a commitment to expanding the city’s commuter rail service. Meanwhile, Worcester’s regional airport, operated by the Massachusetts Port Authority, has struggled badly, with airlines coming and going, but it, too, is showing signs of recovery. One airline just set up shop with flights to Orlando, and city officials say others are seriously considering Worcester service.

The 39-year-old O’Brien sees the CitySquare project as the beneficiary of the previous decade’s rounds of public investment. While the city, state, and federal governments provided most of the financing for the infrastructure mega-projects of the ’90s, taxpayers are largely off the hook this time around, he points out. (The CitySquare development is promised $93 million in city and state funds, with the city hoping to recoup its money from new tax revenue.) O’Brien also views CitySquare as one of many projects that will spur job creation and economic growth in the neighborhoods around them, in the process reconnecting parts of the city that have been cut off from one another.

“It does represent a bold vision,” says O’Brien. “It is a catalyst project, but we can’t look at any project as a silver bullet.”

What’s the best mix of residential, retail, and office space downtown? No one knows for sure, but O’Brien cites an August 2004 report by Sasaki Associates that provided the analytical underpinning for CitySquare. The Boston– and San Francisco–based architecture and planning firm says that, between now and 2010, downtown could likely support 60,000 to 127,000 square feet of new office space, in addition to 223,000 square feet coming from the redevelopment of the defunct Worcester Common mall at the center of downtown. (That site already includes 486,000 square feet of office space in two existing office towers.) In addition, the area could sustain development of nearly 1 million square feet for residential use; 257,000 square feet for retail; 66,000 for entertainment; and 30,000 for a downtown branch of Quinsigamond Community College, according to Sasaki.

ANGELS AND ARTISTS

Compared with other small and mid-sized cities around the Commonwealth that suffered industrial decline and urban decay in the latter half of the 20th century, Lowell and Worcester survived to prosper another day in part because they had people in high places looking out for them.

When Lowell fell on hard times in the 1970s, it turned to the late US senator Paul Tsongas. He hauled in federal money for the national park in his hometown, sparking the keen interest in preserving the city’s industrial heritage that has served it so well in its current makeover. In the late ’70s and ’80s, Chinese immigrant entrepreneur An Wang was another savior. Wang Laboratories made Lowell the unlikely center of a high-tech revolution and spun off technology companies that still proliferate in the Merrimack Valley. After Wang dissolved, a casualty of the high-tech shake-out, Lowell languished in the 1990s but still managed, with state help, to build $240 million worth of new schools, which helped retain middle-class homeowners.

Developer John DeAngelis: Lowell’s
rebirth is a reality, save for a supermarket.

While it hasn’t enjoyed the luxury of a homegrown US senator for a hundred years, Worcester had a friend in the State House, Hudson native Paul Cellucci, who got to know the city when he practiced law at the start of his career. As lieutenant governor and then governor in the 1990s, Cellucci helped funnel state dollars for a new convention center attached to the former Worcester Centrum (now the DCU Center), a heavily booked arena that was the city’s calling card in the ’80s. Among $1 billion worth of other development projects in the past decade was a sprawling 299-bed downtown hospital. Originally called Medical City, the creation of St. Vincent Hospital at Worcester Medical Center on a once-contaminated 24-acre industrial parcel was a near-textbook example of productive reuse of an urban brownfield. The project had its share of controversy, especially when the hospital, built by what was then Fallon Healthcare System, a network made up of the region’s dominant health maintenance organization and a leading physician group practice, was turned over to Tenet Healthcare Corp., a for-profit hospital operator. (Early in 2005 it changed hands again and is now owned by Nashville–based Vanguard Health Systems.)

Now, each city is moving along different paths toward the same goal of economic revitalization. Each is following the imperatives of its own unique population and civic culture.

Lowell was a beacon for immigrants in the ’80s and ’90s, and Southeast Asians eventually made up one third of the city’s population. But the latest renaissance was touched off by artists, who were the first to move into lofts in the old mill buildings. By most estimates there are at least 200 working artists in the city, with the fear now that they are being priced out by high real estate prices and rising property taxes.

Jerry Beck, who fled Boston four years ago to re-establish his innovative Revolving Museum in the heart of Lowell’s newly fashionable downtown, is on a political crusade of sorts to win tax incentives for his fellow arts workers. Standing in the lobby of his contemporary arts center, which is undergoing a $200,000 overhaul this winter, Beck notes the red brick warehouses and factories that surround it. They have survived to be re-occupied by office workers, commuters, and artists because they have been protected by the city’s strict historic preservation regulations, he says. The same, he says, should be done for the artists who helped bring them back to life.

“Hopefully, we can preserve and sustain the arts community just as the buildings are protected,” says Beck. “What happens if they’re selling this city as an arts community and we’re not here any more?”

Capitalizing on its smaller scale and largely intact stock of industrial-revolution edifices, Lowell is pursuing an organic, building-by-building route to revival that began in the 1970s when it became the first city in the United States to be named a national historic park. But Worcester’s approach, consistent with its history, depends on large-scale projects associated with such institutions as universities and hospitals.

Both ways can work, say advocates of the New Urbanism school of regeneration. “These are two different approaches, but there’s merit in both of them,” says Daniel Emerine, a spokesman for the Smart Growth Network in Washington, DC. Lowell could bring itself back to life block by block, says Emerine, but in Worcester’s case, “You have these massive dead zones that require a massive intervention.”

In addition to the first phase of CitySquare, Worcester will see the completion of the Massachusetts Turnpike– Route 146 connector before the decade is out. The Little Dig, as it’s called in Worcester, will finally give the city a direct link to the main interstate highway network. A $90 million vocational high school, which will train workers for the biotechnology companies housed in the flourishing biotech park nearby, is set to open in the fall. In September, ground was broken for the 55-acre, $250 million Gateway Park biomedical complex, a joint venture between the city and Worcester Polytechnic Institute that will include housing units, office space, and laboratories. The $180 million court-house now going up on Main Street will be the biggest local courthouse in the state when it is done in 2007.

MANAGERIAL CONTROL

It may be no coincidence that both Worcester and Lowell operate under the city manager–city council form of government, a framework whose advocates are convinced yields more rational decision-making and less backroom political maneuvering. But if the manager-council system takes some of the politics out of local government, Lowell’s decision to eliminate district council seats carries the concept one step further. Worcester still has five district seats, and the district councilors have tended to favor their own constituents’ parochial interests. Still, the usually quarrelsome council has gone along for the ride, at least for now. Along with the city manager, Mayor Timothy Murray—who is a city councilor, though he is directly elected by the voters, not his fellow councilors—has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for CitySquare. Indeed, Murray was credited with the idea for the project after releasing a white paper advocating the sale of the moribund mall.

In the past, Worcester’s mayors have feuded with the managers, in the process encouraging advocates of the strong-mayor alternative to lead periodic uprisings against the manager-council system (see “Whither Worcester?CW, Fall ’04), only to be beaten back. But with the dynamic young O’Brien at the helm, and Murray—long whispered to be coveting the powers of a strong mayor—behind him, the cause is dead, at least for now. The city has fallen back into comfort, if not love, with the managerial system, and the fruits of it seem to be at hand.

Does the form of municipal governance matter? Not according to the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, which considered that question in a 2004 report titled Mayor vs. Manager. Surveying 22 like-sized cities, the bureau found that manager-led cities such as Portland, Maine, and Fort Lauderdale have prospered, but so, too, have mayor-run Stamford and Providence. On the other hand, city managers haven’t saved Hartford. The conclusion: What counts is the quality of leadership itself.

“It really does depend on who’s in charge,” says bureau executive director Roberta Schaeffer.

Lowell seems to have had no such tension over its governance system. Even in the darkest days, the city’s business establishment and political class stuck with the managerial government it adopted in 1944, five years before Worcester.

“There’s a real sense that it’s the best way to run a city, even in bad times,” says Kendall Wallace, chairman of the board of the Lowell Sun newspaper, who has observed the city’s ups and downs over five decades. “The managers have been strong and have been allowed to function without a lot of political interference.”

NEW URBAN VILLAGE

CitySquare’s designers and architects are purveyors of the New Urbanism. But unlike the salesmen of urban renewal, the new urbanists have shown that their model works. In places such as Atlanta and Lakeville, Colo. (in suburban Denver), they have replaced brownfields and failing malls with large-scale, mixed-use communities where people live, work, shop, and play.

Berkeley Investments, also the developer of the 121 High St. project in Boston’s Financial District, is building CitySquare on the footprint, or grave, of the old Worcester Galleria and its gargantuan, if little used, parking lot. The defunct mall, which morphed into the short-lived and unlamented Worcester Common Fashion Outlets in the early ’90s, was one of a species of nearly extinct urban malls that still haunts the downtowns of Springfield, Hartford, and New Haven.

When the Galleria opened in 1971 in the heart of the city, it was hailed as the way of the future, a bit of suburban shopping nirvana in downtown Worcester. But encased in windowless concrete and shut off from city streets, the mall lurched toward failure even as it swallowed up the urban landscape. A barren multi-lane thoroughfare, Worcester Center Boulevard, disrupted the downtown roadway grid and supplanted Main Street, whose businesses withered.

Now, CitySquare is aiming to reknit the urban fabric by erecting a city within a city, its architects say. New streets will reconnect the old as downtown gets pulled together with Washington Square, the chaotic rotary in front of Union Station, and Shrewsbury Street. But the project is also intended to open up to the city around it with plazas, two theaters, street-level restaurants and shops, and 600 upscale condos in three new buildings to go with three new office towers.

“In Lowell, the city infrastructure is still in place. We have to re-create that here,” says David Bois, a senior associate at Somerville–based Arrowstreet, Berkeley’s architecture firm. “Our goal is to reintroduce the city scale that’s lost right now.”

Bois and his colleagues aren’t looking to fabricate a red brick wonderland for Worcester. Their vision is for buildings “of this time,” as Bois puts it. Lowell-style loft living, with its long narrow spaces and limited storage, isn’t for everybody, Bois points out. CitySquare will be marketed to people who want a modern urban experience with the kind of amenities associated with market-rate apartments in downtown Boston or New York, he says.

Paul Giorgio—cafe owner, loft builder, and publisher of a new entertainment magazine in Worcester—houses his ventures in the middle of a budding entertainment district off downtown that has attracted gay- and lesbian-owned businesses and their customers. He likes Worcester’s new dynamism, but he cautions that the city should be mindful of nurturing its own talent. “It’s good to bring in fresh capital, but you also need to look at local people and encourage them,” Giorgio says.

Indeed, there are some concerns in both Worcester and Lowell about turning once-proud industrial cities into Boston bedroom communities. Sure, the newcomers love their lofts, condos, and cafes, and they might prefer commuter rail to highways, but will they have any attachment to their new communities? Whether they will participate in civic life, schools, and government, or even read the local newspaper, is yet to be seen.

AS LOWELL GOES, SO GOES WORCESTER?

While downtown Lowell’s physical plant is still intact and Worcester’s has been ripped apart, the two cities still share a host of resemblances. Both are old manufacturing centers that have been cut off from Boston by their perches off the main roadway networks. Lowell is tethered awkwardly to I-93 by the desolate Lowell Connector. Worcester has never had its own exit on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Keeping to the main highways, drivers from Boston have to get off the Pike in Auburn, past the city, and travel east on I-290 to get to downtown Worcester.

And neither has completely shed the persistent image each shares with other smaller Bay State cities as dangerous places with shoddy schools, few jobs, and bleak futures. A 1995 HBO documentary on Lowell’s crack cocaine problem didn’t help. Both cities struggle to control gang violence.

Though about half Worcester’s size, Lowell is the business, education, culture, and media hub of its region, the Merrimack Valley, just as Worcester dominates central Massachusetts. With nine colleges and universities, Worcester out-does Lowell in sheer number of schools. But the bustling downtown campus of Lowell’s Middlesex Community College contributes more to the life of the city than Holy Cross, Assumption, and many of the other Worcester colleges that, located in residential neighborhoods, have largely stayed aloof from the city center over the years. (Clark University has been an exception, becoming a linchpin of development in the beleaguered Main South neighborhood, but it still has no presence in the traditional central business district.) One sign of academic life downtown is the new Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences complex, where 300 students now live and study.

James Cook: Loans to Lowell start-ups
were “far more successful” than expected.

In Lowell, the professionals, teachers, and municipal employees who have stuck with the city live in comfortable tree-lined neighborhoods such as Belvedere and Lowell Highlands that look remarkably like sections of Newton or Brookline—and like Worcester’s expansive, middle-class West Side. Worcester has the Worcester Art Museum, one of the best small museums in the country, to compete with the Lowell National Historical Park, the Lowell Art Museum, and Beck’s modern art museum and the new wave of galleries. Not to be outdone by Lowell’s minor league baseball team, the Boston Red Sox-affiliated Spinners, last spring Worcester brought to a refurbished Fitton Field at Holy Cross its first professional baseball team in a century, the independent league Worcester Tornadoes. (See “Rooting for the Home Team,” CW, Fall ’05.)

Both cities also have well-read newspapers that cover daily developments in their hometowns with an intensity that the Boston papers don’t try to match. Both the Lowell Sun and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette have been bought up by outside chains and have gone through downsizing, but they remain influential voices in their communities. The Telegram & Gazette has opted to stay in its old downtown building, sections of which have been renovated by its corporate parent, The New York Times Co. The Sun, meanwhile, will soon play its part in Lowell’s downtown transformation by swapping its headquarters in a not-yet-redeveloped corner of downtown to developer DeAngelis for one third of the American Textile History Museum, which is downsizing because of weak attendance. DeAngelis will renovate both buildings.

While things may be happening on a bigger scale in their city, members of a group of Worcester business, university, and municipal leaders that formed in September are looking to Lowell as a model for their own efforts. The new economic development partnership has based itself on the venerable Lowell Plan, a public-private nonprofit corporation that was born in the 1970s to guide Lowell’s growth. Paul Tsongas and then-city manager Joe Tully sketched out the idea for the Lowell Plan on a napkin. Today it carries on in the form of the Lowell Plan Commission, with James Cook, head of the Lowell Development Finance Corp., serving as executive director. Like the Lowell Plan, the Worcester entity will have its own staff and funding.

Despite the gains of Worcester’s biotech and medical sectors over the last 20 years, the city’s employment and wage growth has lagged well behind Lowell’s, and the country’s, since 1990, according to a McKinsey & Co. report commissioned by the new Worcester group. The McKinsey report noted the success of the Lowell Plan’s current three-year, $1 million marketing campaign, with its slogan: “There’s a lot to like about Lowell.” The consultants also highlighted Lowell’s markedly lower business tax rates and embarrassingly higher commercial tax base.

Michael Angelini, a prominent Worcester lawyer who is a leader of the new group, says Lowell’s experience “gave us a kick in the pants to get things moving.” One thing Angelini and others, including city manager O’Brien, want to do right away is mimic Lowell’s Downtown Venture Fund and start funneling cash to small-business startups. Heeding another McKinsey recommendation, O’Brien reeled in his economic development agencies, which were scattered in various departments, and made them into a single, unified group—something Lowell did years ago.

Meet the Author
People in both communities say they can learn, and take inspiration, from each other’s example. Developer DeAngelis says that he’s sure Lowell, in its success, is paving the way for its bigger cousin to the south and west. “Lowell is small, Worcester is vast,” he says. “It’s going to expand to Worcester within three or four years. It will come to Worcester.”

Shaun Sutner is a reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.