The Battle Over the Directional Heart of the Canal

Some people have asked Jane Jacobs in the Woo, “Why do you travel so far to Providence, New York, North End in Boston, to show us the kind of development that brings cities to life? Why don’t you show us “Jane Jacobs” right here in the Woo?”  Because of our past development mistakes, Worcester simply no longer has the kind of mixed use, high density development in sufficient concentration to showcase a vibrant urban neighborhood.  We have NO NORTH END in Worcester!  Sure, there are tiny pockets – the Albanian gentlemen drinking their coffees outside of Express Yourself café in the node up past Newton Square on the corner of Richmond, the neighborhood “sans Sole” around Highland Street, spurts of life along Pleasant Street towards the Pickle Barrel, the life and spice on and off the main drag in Main South, the potential promise around Webster Square. 

If you really want to see where the ideas of Jane Jacobs are currently sprouting to life in the Woo, all you have to do is head on over to the Canal District!  

Which direction will we take in the Canal District?  

Which direction will we take in the Canal District?  

The Canal District businesses are working towards a vision of a permanent, sustainable, mixed use, twenty four hour, urban neighborhood whose development is supported by its proximity to intermodal transportation at Union Station and easy highway access.  The Canal District builds its story off of the historical use of the Blackstone River, the canal that once flowed under the streets and the old mills that hint of a manufacturing past.  

Jane Jacobs applauds the creative reuse of former industrial buildings such as turning the Chevalier Furniture factory into the Canal Loft apartments.  Converting these historical assets into housing also creates a 24 hour neighborhood where people actually live, walk their dogs, frequent the nearby stores, restaurants and bars. 

Jane Jacobs applauds the creative reuse of former industrial buildings such as turning the Chevalier Furniture factory into the Canal Loft apartments.  Converting these historical assets into housing also creates a 24 hour neighborhood where people actually live, walk their dogs, frequent the nearby stores, restaurants and bars. 

The Canal District is quickly becoming Worcester's hotspot for eating and drinking.  The future challenge for the Canal District is to maintain enough diversity of uses (housing, restaurants, retail, commercial, industrial) to offset an over-saturation of drinking destinations.  A healthy district must have a balanced mix of reasons to be on the streets.

The Canal District is quickly becoming Worcester's hotspot for eating and drinking.  The future challenge for the Canal District is to maintain enough diversity of uses (housing, restaurants, retail, commercial, industrial) to offset an over-saturation of drinking destinations.  A healthy district must have a balanced mix of reasons to be on the streets.

Strangers become an enormous asset on the street on which I live… particularly at night when safety assets are most needed. We are fortunate enough, on the street, to be gifted not only with a locally supported bar and another around the corner, but also with a famous bar that draws continuous troops of strangers from adjoining neighborhoods and even from out of town… The comings and goings from this bar do much to keep our street reasonably populated until three in the morning and it is a street always safe to come home to.
— Jane Jacobs on the role of bars to keep the streets safe at night ( a truism despite the sporadic bar-related incidences happening in the district after bar-closing time this summer!)
Canal District Art Walk on Water Street every third Tuesday evening this summer

Canal District Art Walk on Water Street every third Tuesday evening this summer

The Canal businesses own the Jane Jacobs playbook!  They fully understand that the best way to enliven the sidewalk life is to entice people outside. (Compare this to the trend of mega-development projects that encourage people to drive, park and enter into large buildings for their business.)  The action should be happening as much outside a building as inside the building.  People come down here to this small neighborhood for exciting happenings and the spontaneous interactions they might experience out in the street.  Just this summer, Crompton Place is hosting a twice weekly farmers market, Wednesday evening outdoor summer concerts along with food truck vendors, horse and wagon tours on Thursday evenings.  Other local businesses have organized the Canal District Art Walk along Water Street one Tuesday evening a month during this summer.

Artist's rendition of the Canal District once the Canal is replicated.  Public funding targeted towards this kind of infrastructure investment would serve as a catalyst to private development in the neighborhood. Providence, Rhode Island and San Antonio, Texas are just two cities that have experienced revival around waterways.  Why not Worcester?

Artist's rendition of the Canal District once the Canal is replicated.  Public funding targeted towards this kind of infrastructure investment would serve as a catalyst to private development in the neighborhood. Providence, Rhode Island and San Antonio, Texas are just two cities that have experienced revival around waterways.  Why not Worcester?

The Canal District is Jane Jacobs country, Worcester.  So, when “Robert Moses” tries to force his way into THIS neighborhood after making a shambles of the downtown, there is bound to be a battle a-brewing.  In 2003, the city worked with local businesses to map out the stakeholders' vision of the district that included the linkage of the area to the historic Blackstone River and a feasibility study to replicate the canal along Harding Street.  The Canal District Business Alliance working together with Representative Jim McGovern was instrumental in attracting federal stimulus funds for needed streetscape improvements including tree plantings and the placement of dedicated bike lanes.  Despite this crucial financial support, the brave pioneers who are sparking the canal district revival have primarily put in their own sweat equity, energy and private funds to make something happen there.  To date, no public funds have been forthcoming to bring the community-driven dream of an opened canal to light. 

The biggest slap in the face to the Canal District stakeholders happened this year when over 2 million dollars in grant funding ($550,000 from the City of Worcester and 1.9 million from Mass Development) was awarded to the developer to clear a brownfield block to make pad ready for the building of a new hockey rink.  The ink was already dried on the self-congratulatory press release even before there was ever a public planning board hearing. Even though the powers-that-be made symbolic gestures to solicit input from the local businesses prior to the public announcement, the deal was already done.  In the “divide and conquer” strategy, this project was plowed through, pitting locals against one another.  Some businesses were not willing to negotiate to welcome a project that clearly counteracts the style and vision of what the collective has been working towards for more than a decade.  Others attempted to sit at the table to negotiate a final design that could somehow fit Jacobian standards including the incorporation of mixed use retail space and windows along dead exterior walls.  As one business owner declared to me, “You can try to fit in retail and put in some windows but in the end, it’s a big box and it doesn’t fit in a neighborhood.”

So, what vision really works here in the Canal District?  Who will win out? To fully understand the two competing urban development models, let’s compare and contrast Crompton Place on Green Street with the $18 million dollar hockey rink development in the Harding-Winter Streets block that is soon coming on line.

Crompton Place: Canal District Jane Jacobs Hero

I’m sitting here at the Birchtree Bread Company on the ground floor of Crompton Place on Green Street and spilling ice tea on the computer as I write.  This is the new and hot hang-out place especially for those hungry for casual places to meet.  I sometimes sit here most of a day to write, eat, drink tea and chat with acquaintances that walk through the door.  The creaky, wooden floors, brick lined walls and support joists holding up huge wooden beams give a hint to this building’s past.  Now people here are drinking coffee and enjoying artisanal breads but in its past, this room was most likely filled with the soft moans of workers weaving fancy fabrics on looms developed by the building’s owner at that time, William Crompton.  Here is a creative reuse of an old industrial property.   Crompton Place is a shining example of a mixed use human-size scaled development project combining retail, service and residential all on one site.  Here one can get a haircut, find a unique antique or collectible at the Crompton Collective or the new-kid-on-the-block, Seed To Stem, eat authentic Mexican, get advice about buying a home, find the best farm fresh eggs at a weekly farmers market or listen to an outdoor music concert on a breezy summer Wednesday evening. Here is the mixed use ideal:  Residential units are available in the adjacent building so you don't have to leave at night.

This parking lot is for the people (!) at a summer evening Wednesday music concert outside of Crompton Place.  Note the mural on the left side depicting this neighborhood's link to the industrial history of the Blackstone River canal.

This parking lot is for the people (!) at a summer evening Wednesday music concert outside of Crompton Place.  Note the mural on the left side depicting this neighborhood's link to the industrial history of the Blackstone River canal.

When Dino Lorusso purchased this historic property in 2007, he had a vision in his mind of a neighborhood he once knew and wanted to bring to life again. I first met Dino when he was laying the bricks for the outdoor patio in the back.  The day was hot and he was mixing up the cement.  He gave new meaning to the term “sweat equity” that steamy afternoon.  I have seen him build this patio for over 6 weeks and he finally installed a new water fountain in the back.  It is this incremental, slow pace of “unslumming” that Jane Jacobs applauded. Unlike the infusion of huge amounts of public capital support down the street at the ice hockey rink site, Dino has primarily spearheaded this project on his own financially. He is not only the best day laborer on site here but he actually never leaves, living in one of the residential units at this complex in the adjacent building where El Patron serves the best, authentic Mexican food.  Doesn’t get more locally owned that that! 

The brick patio that Dino built one brick at a time!  

The brick patio that Dino built one brick at a time!  

Compare Dino's solo building of the patio with the cataclysmic pace of development of the hockey rink down the street.  One hallmark of a "Robert Moses" type project is the clear cutting of large tracts of land for a single use facility.  Sniff out where the bulldozers are most active! This summer, this whole city block was cleared to make room for the new hockey rink venue.

Compare Dino's solo building of the patio with the cataclysmic pace of development of the hockey rink down the street.  One hallmark of a "Robert Moses" type project is the clear cutting of large tracts of land for a single use facility.  Sniff out where the bulldozers are most active! This summer, this whole city block was cleared to make room for the new hockey rink venue.

 

Ice Hockey Rink:Canal District Robert Moses Intrusion

An artistic rendition of the anticipated hockey rink project in the Canal District.  It's great to have transparent windows linking the interior to the neighborhood in the front of this building.  The concern is that at least two of the exterior walls will have no windows resulting in a deadened street life on those sides.  Winter Street will be one of the recipients of an almost block long dead wall, rendering this main street unappealing to pedestrian traffic.

An artistic rendition of the anticipated hockey rink project in the Canal District.  It's great to have transparent windows linking the interior to the neighborhood in the front of this building.  The concern is that at least two of the exterior walls will have no windows resulting in a deadened street life on those sides.  Winter Street will be one of the recipients of an almost block long dead wall, rendering this main street unappealing to pedestrian traffic.

Aah, I can just hear the push back.  What do you have against our kids having a place to play hockey?  Why are you against the anticipated 50,000 visitors a year who will go to this new facility to attend games and the potential economic spin-off from this activity?  The industrial properties of the Presmet/ GKN Sinter Metals have been vacant since 2007, leaving empty shells and environmental contaminants in the space.  Isn’t a hockey rink preferable to a desolate, brownfield site?  Isn’t your condemnation of this project a typical Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) response to any change? 

Jane Jacobs in the Woo already anticipates the counter arguments but wants the reader to consider how the building design impacts the vitality of the surrounding neighborhood.  Consider the following:

  •  Since this is the type of “drive – park – enter” mega-complex (the standard suburbanized development project in this city!), what mechanisms can be put into place to encourage people to spill out into the local neighborhood?
  •  This massive scale development takes up a full city block.  What happens in the hockey off-season, slow season or the times where there are no games and no activity?  This block will be dead to any viable activity.
  • In the current design, at least two sides of the mega-building are devoid of windows or doors linking the interior to the exterior.  No matter how beautiful a mural is on a side of an empty wall, these long stretches of sidewalk will be dead space, devoid of fruitful pedestrian activity, the complete antithesis of the kind of walkable twenty four hour neighborhood the Canal District Alliance businesses have been working towards for so long.
  • To satisfy the rapacious need for parking, the developers may very well level surrounding block lots for surface parking.  This "scorched earth policy" will create more devastating deadened space in the neighborhood, inducing a continued demand for accommodations for cars, rather than for pedestrians.  

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.