It's a hot, sunny August morning and I've dragged my children out of the house early to take the heart-to-hub 8 am train to Boston. Less than a ten minute walk away from South Station, we arrive at the offices of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance. We're here to have an in-depth discussion with the Executive Director, Andre Leroux about the recent changes in Massachusetts zoning laws, new economic development legislation, the importance of mixed income neighborhoods and ways we can create vibrant urban spaces. As a Worcester native who spent his formative years in our city, Andre especially has some keen insights for us.
The writer of this blog has no vested interest in the Canal District. This writer does not live there, does not run a business there and does not own property there. Jane Jacobs in the Woo sees what is happening though and sees how huge mega-box developments with adjacent parking complexes have served to deaden our streets and sidewalks especially in our downtown. A big hope for a different path has been in the Canal District. So when Jane Jacobs in the Woo sees the encroachment happening there, she gets mad. An outsider will scratch her head, “Why does Worcester make the same mistake over and over and over again?” Wake up! We need to prioritize the kind of mixed use, high density, home grown successful development projects that are being showcased so beautifully by Dino Lorusso at Crompton Place.
We have already demonstrated in this blog how our emphasis on building "park and enter" mega projects cum parking garages has resulted in a deadened street life. It's time for some real soul searching here. Do we want to continue to be an auto-centric, sprawling suburbanized city or do we want to stop, rethink and envision a different path?
In the post World War II suburban and automobile age, cities had a choice between two urban development paradigms. From the very first groundbreaking of the Salem Square Development and the Worcester Galleria Mall, Worcester chose the urban renewal path of automobile-centric, single use, low density mega-projects cum parking garages. We chose an urban landscape designed for cars and not for people. Therefore, fifty years later, it should come as no surprise that our streets are filled with cars, our sidewalks demonstrate little "street ballet" and foot traffic and our residents hunger for open, spontaneous public meeting spaces that are lacking. The question is: can we learn from these past development mistakes? Can we turn this around?
So, we've reviewed the two major planning paradigms this past week and we have traveled to Boston to see how those models manifest in the North End and the former West End. Now, it's time to tiptoe back to Worcester. Let's see how these two models compare right here at home. We're traveling down Highland Street towards downtown.
In the last blog post, we outlined two urban planning models "duking it out" in cities across the country in the age of automobiles and suburbs after World War II. What should our cities look like? What are the ingredients to building a thriving urban ecosystem? Sometimes it's easier to understand the differences between the two models if we take a step away from Worcester and go somewhere else. Today, let's head to two very distinct neighborhoods in Boston. Please observe the two photos down below carefully. Here is question #1: One photo is an example of the Robert Moses Urban Renewal model of development. The other photo highlights the Jane Jacobs Neighborhood Rejuvenation ideal. Can you guess which is which? Question #2: Choose your preference. Where would you rather live or visit?
In this blog, we are attempting to answer some of our questions: Why are there not more walkable neighborhoods in Worcester? How can we develop more open, spontaneous public spaces in our city? There is plenty to do here but why does it seem like there is nothing to do? Why do we travel to Boston, Providence, even Northampton for the kind of urban vitality that we crave? Why does this city feel so, so, so…. suburban!? A way to unpack these answers is to compare two competing urban planning models fighting it out since the 1950s and 1960s. To understand how this urban planning war manifested in cities across the country, let’s go to New York City where in the 1960s, Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs wrestled aggressively over the vision of what “Gotham” should be post WWII in the age of automobiles and new suburbs.
Who exactly is Dan Burden and why is he going for a walk with us here in downtown Worcester? Dan is not an engineer. Dan is not even a professionally trained urban planner, architect or designer. So, who is Dan Burden and why are cities all across the country asking him to give advice on how to design walkable, livable urban streets? As a former professional photographer for National Geographic Magazine, Dan developed a keen eye that has been able to observe what makes a city thrive. He has traveled to cities around the world and even made a solo bike trek from Alaska to Argentina. He rarely slows down now, visiting cities across the country to design streets for people and not just for cars.
It’s a typical Wednesday spring evening in downtown Worcester. I’m off to pick up some books at the main library in Salem Square. At 7:30 pm, the weather is still warm, no need to wear a jacket. What a perfect evening to be out and about for a walk! Yet, less than a handful of people are walking the street as I drive past city hall. Stores are predominantly closed. Even in the library, there are few patrons, the librarians congregating around the information kiosk discussing the latest movie. Downtown Worcester after office hours is mostly dead. In this blog, we will be analyzing in great detail the city’s development decisions that have resulted in this sorry state. Today, let’s step back even further to understand the federal policies and spending priorities that shaped the explosive growth of auto-centric suburbs and the implosion of cities across the country. Worcester was just one city that became a casualty in this larger national shift.
By now, many Worcesterites have seen the six minute online video created by the WBDC and the Worcester Idea Lab that depicts their vision of Worcester in 2020. Future blog posts will analyze the planning paradigm behind the video. Today, we will focus on the eye- rolling dig against the Midtown Mall in that video. Why all the venom and disgust thrown the way of this unpolished jewel of downtown? Could it be that the building is in need of maintenance, repairs and updating? It’s true that the structure needs work. The barricaded escalator looks like it hasn’t worked in years. Who knows the condition of the heating and electrical system! Could the condescending comments be the result of some empty, underutilized storefronts especially on the basement level of the building? Hmm… Well, there are many downtown buildings with higher vacancy rates. I just want to throw out this last hypothesis, that the little digs barely disguise pronounced classist and even racist attitudes of what “fits” with the documentary producers’ vision of a downtown that works. The Midtown Mall doesn’t have yoga studios, fancy juice or cappuccino bars, artisan boutiques or anything that caters to the tastes of West Siders. Here is the important question: Who “owns” the acceptable aesthetic?
A couple of months ago when I began to discuss the idea for this blog, an acquaintance of mine asked me if I ever read Nicole Apostola’s blog. He was a big fan of hers and thought we would have similar opinions on Worcester’s urban development landscape. Actually, I had never heard of Nicole, mostly because prior to this current experiment, I simply have not lived my life online. Now, my world is exploding with new found connections and like-minded fellows. I “friended” Nicole on facebook and sent her a fan message, asking her if she would be open to talk. Even though she wrote me that her writing is more proficient than her speaking, I convinced her to meet for a phone conversation. (By the way,Nicole, you are just as prolific voice- to- voice as you are with your pen!) On a Friday night, we talked for almost two hours, our conversation meandering over so many topics – her husband teaching Irish (Gaelic), Jeff Barnard,the wormtown taxi blogger who died in 2010 as her inspiration to become a blogger herself, city politics and crazy stories.
Maybe this is no coincidence: This June, two of our iconic, historic Worcester churches, Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Mulberry Street and Notre Dame des Canadiens in downtown, are pending hearings for their immediate demolition. At the Worcester Historical Commission meetings, the petitioners, the Catholic Diocese of Worcester for Mt. Carmel on June 9th and the developers of City Square for Notre Dame on June 30th, are requesting waivers from the one year waiting period for demolition orders. Their goal: Tear down right away. The Diocese is arguing that Mt Carmel poses a safety hazard, the building’s façade potentially crumbling onto drivers on closely adjacent route 290. The City Square developer claims that there is no economically viable reuse for Notre Dame and that its presence becomes a barrier to the successful on-time completion of the City Square project.
A district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones. Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them...If a city has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction....