Report Card on 50 Years Worcester Urban Development: It's Robert Moses Time

Large swatches of construction built at one time are inherently inefficient for sheltering wide ranges of cultural, population, and business diversity....

These neighborhoods show a strange inability to update itself, enliven itself, repair itself, or to be sought after, out of choice, by a new generation. It is dead. Actually it was dead from birth, but nobody noticed this much until the corpse began to smell.
— Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities

The bad news, Worcester, is that we may have some stinky corpses on our hands!

Aahh, but WBDC, here is the thing:  If the answer is downtown, what really, truly is the question!!?

Aahh, but WBDC, here is the thing:  If the answer is downtown, what really, truly is the question!!?

Jane Jacobs clearly labeled the four elements required to "generate exuberant diversity in a city's streets and districts."  These are the must-haves:

  1. Mixed uses - A neighborhood, even one development project must have a combination of uses - residential, retail, commercial, industrial, etc.
  2. City blocks must be short so people can turn corners frequently to find the unexpected.
  3. There must be a mixture of old and new buildings.  Never just tear down your infrastructure in one full swoop and build all new!  
  4. High density.  People must be packed together in high concentrations.

Because these four conditions are so important to building thriving cities and because we have made many development mistakes in Worcester over the past 60 years that goes contrary to these principle building blocks, I'm going to reiterate these ideas once again in Jane Jacobs' own words. 

A city can realize its best potential, economically and creatively if it meets these four conditions:

1. The district... must serve more than one primary function, preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes but who are able to use the facilities in common.
2. Most blocks must be short, that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield. The mingling must be fairly closely grained.
4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people for whatever purposes they may be there... (including) people who are there because of residence.
— Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities

So, now we turn to our city to evaluate our urban development program since the 1950s.  How closely have we followed Jane Jacobs' formula for success?  Proponents might point to past projects as generators of increased tax revenue and job creation.  Proponents might shake their finger at me: what do YOU have against hockey rinks for our kids, new research facilities for the bio-tech industry, book lending from the library, healing centers for cancer patients, stadium seating concerts?  These are all important and wonderful uses but Jane Jacobs in the Woo is simply asking some very different targeted questions.  

Do our development projects promote an active street and sidewalk life?

Do our development projects create an interactive civic commons and enhance our sense of true community?

Do our development projects satisfy Jane Jacobs' four required conditions?

We are evaluating Worcester's past and present urban development projects: Worcester Center Galleria Mall, the Salem Square Development (library and the YWCA),  DCU Center, St. Vincent/Medical City, Gateway Park, City Square and finally, the hockey rink project in the Canal District.  Based on our pointed evaluation questions above,  Jane Jacobs in the Woo would give these projects an "F", a resounding failing, F,  pointing out that our deadened streets are primarily due to the size and model of these projects and how they interface with the surrounding physical landscape.  These projects, for the most part, fail to meet any of Jane Jacobs' four requirements for exuberant districts.  They are massive in scale, taking up large tracts of land, sometimes more than a full city block.  The process of building these projects has resulted in the bulldozing of our old, historic infrastructure, urban renewal in its most destructive element.  We can never get those old buildings back, Worcester.  It's now gone and for what? The projects are mostly single use, low density affairs that belong more in sprawling suburbs than in a dense city.  Indeed, these "park and enter" projects have served to "suburbanize" our city, especially our downtown core where most of them are located.

These projects will not revitalize downtown; they will deaden it. They will be stable and symmetrical and orderly. They will be clean, impressive and monumental. They will have all the attributes of a well-dept dignified cemetery.
— Jane Jacobs

But let's stop talking now.  Let me show you what I mean.  Come for a walk with me to Major Taylor Boulevard. (Side note:  Why is it called Major Taylor Boulevard after the famous cyclist when this street is like a highway and you take your life in your hands to bike there or cross it on foot?)  We'll start at Medical City, travel on foot around the DCU Center and observe what is up.   

We begin our tour at the main door of Saint Vincent Hospital.  Remember  we saw this same model before at the library and the YWCA where the development faces its parking lot and turns its back on the main street on the opposite side of the structure?  Again, the message is clear:  This is a building you will drive to, enter, do your business and then leave to your car.  The development model also kills off the street life on the other side of the huge facility.  Saint Vincent Hospital is primarily a single use building and city block.  You are most likely only going to enter if you are sick or if you work with the sick.  

We begin our tour at the main door of Saint Vincent Hospital.  Remember  we saw this same model before at the library and the YWCA where the development faces its parking lot and turns its back on the main street on the opposite side of the structure?  Again, the message is clear:  This is a building you will drive to, enter, do your business and then leave to your car.  The development model also kills off the street life on the other side of the huge facility.  Saint Vincent Hospital is primarily a single use building and city block.  You are most likely only going to enter if you are sick or if you work with the sick.  

You don't even have to hit a city sidewalk to exercise.  7.5 times around this interior"park" makes for a mile.  Look!  You can even find trees in here. You don't have to go outside at all!  Everything about this project is drawing you inside the four walls.

You don't even have to hit a city sidewalk to exercise.  7.5 times around this interior"park" makes for a mile.  Look!  You can even find trees in here. You don't have to go outside at all!  Everything about this project is drawing you inside the four walls.

At the other entrance on the corner of Foster Street and Major Taylor Boulevard, there is a bit of "mixed use" thrown in - a nail and hair salon, a dry cleaner, a couple of restaurants.  

At the other entrance on the corner of Foster Street and Major Taylor Boulevard, there is a bit of "mixed use" thrown in - a nail and hair salon, a dry cleaner, a couple of restaurants.  

But this second main entrance facing downtown is closed after 8 pm.  I guess the city is fairly dead by that time so why keep the one door open that is the gateway to downtown?

But this second main entrance facing downtown is closed after 8 pm.  I guess the city is fairly dead by that time so why keep the one door open that is the gateway to downtown?

It's a key plus to have this second main entrance linking to the rest of downtown.  This entrance is large and inviting and welcoming on the corner of Major Taylor and Foster.  Good job.

It's a key plus to have this second main entrance linking to the rest of downtown.  This entrance is large and inviting and welcoming on the corner of Major Taylor and Foster.  Good job.

Only one problem:  The entrance in the last photo is primarily the only point of access into and out of the hospital for this entire large block.  At the end of the block is another emergency entrance down a long driveway that is primarily accessible for cars and ambulances, not necessarily pedestrians. Although there are plenty of good windows along the facade, there are no doors. Consequently, there is no reason to walk along the full block length of this whole sidewalk.  The entire side along the main thoroughfare is dead - nowhere to walk and nothing really to see. 

Only one problem:  The entrance in the last photo is primarily the only point of access into and out of the hospital for this entire large block.  At the end of the block is another emergency entrance down a long driveway that is primarily accessible for cars and ambulances, not necessarily pedestrians. Although there are plenty of good windows along the facade, there are no doors. Consequently, there is no reason to walk along the full block length of this whole sidewalk.  The entire side along the main thoroughfare is dead - nowhere to walk and nothing really to see. 

If you are able to cross the street, you will find the Major Taylor Boulevard Municipal Garage.  There is a tiny nod to the idea of "mixed use" with the storefront restaurant Mezcal Cantina on the lower level, but it is hard to disguise this parking complex.  Most people who attend events across the street at the DCU Center will park here.  It is the typical, park-enter building- exit and leave" kind of project, but where else would someone have to go to walk around here? Let's take a breath and try to get to the other side of this highway type of road to go over to the DCU Center.

If you are able to cross the street, you will find the Major Taylor Boulevard Municipal Garage.  There is a tiny nod to the idea of "mixed use" with the storefront restaurant Mezcal Cantina on the lower level, but it is hard to disguise this parking complex.  Most people who attend events across the street at the DCU Center will park here.  It is the typical, park-enter building- exit and leave" kind of project, but where else would someone have to go to walk around here? Let's take a breath and try to get to the other side of this highway type of road to go over to the DCU Center.

Welcome to the DCU Center and try not to trip on this sidewalk!  We have a good start here - plenty of windows, access doors out on to the sidewalk and the building faces the main street!  Hooray!!

Welcome to the DCU Center and try not to trip on this sidewalk!  We have a good start here - plenty of windows, access doors out on to the sidewalk and the building faces the main street!  Hooray!!

We're walking up towards Foster Street and as you can see, I'm the only one on this whole sidewalk.  Indeed, I haven't encountered anyone on this side of the street for the past 10 minutes.It's almost eerily dead!  It's about 10:30 AM on a weekday morning and no one is in sight. Remember what we learned from Jane Jacobs:  There needs to be continuous reasons for people to be out and about on the sidewalks.  The DCU Center is primarily  a single use venue and the only reason someone has to be out here is to go to a concert or other event inside this building.  Otherwise, this whole block is dead.

We're walking up towards Foster Street and as you can see, I'm the only one on this whole sidewalk.  Indeed, I haven't encountered anyone on this side of the street for the past 10 minutes.It's almost eerily dead!  It's about 10:30 AM on a weekday morning and no one is in sight. Remember what we learned from Jane Jacobs:  There needs to be continuous reasons for people to be out and about on the sidewalks.  The DCU Center is primarily  a single use venue and the only reason someone has to be out here is to go to a concert or other event inside this building.  Otherwise, this whole block is dead.

Oh, how great is this!  Sting and Peter Gabriel were here  in Worcester on July 2nd.  I'm serious.  I love this music!  But, let's think about the streets here.  People will pass by these sidewalks on the way to the concert and several hours later, they will leave and probably go to their cars.  That's probably about 2 hours of heavy sidewalk traffic on this particular day.  The rest of the 24 hours, all will be quiet here as I'm experiencing it now.  On the days when nothing is scheduled at the DCU Center, we have this whole city block that is essentially asleep.

Oh, how great is this!  Sting and Peter Gabriel were here  in Worcester on July 2nd.  I'm serious.  I love this music!  But, let's think about the streets here.  People will pass by these sidewalks on the way to the concert and several hours later, they will leave and probably go to their cars.  That's probably about 2 hours of heavy sidewalk traffic on this particular day.  The rest of the 24 hours, all will be quiet here as I'm experiencing it now.  On the days when nothing is scheduled at the DCU Center, we have this whole city block that is essentially asleep.

I counted 27 doors leading into this facility.  All of them were locked, of course, because nothing is happening here right now.  It's the middle of the workday.  This block is lifeless - no street traffic, no signs of pedestrian life, nothing.  I'm walking around this building and I am all alone.

I counted 27 doors leading into this facility.  All of them were locked, of course, because nothing is happening here right now.  It's the middle of the workday.  This block is lifeless - no street traffic, no signs of pedestrian life, nothing.  I'm walking around this building and I am all alone.

This is a HUGE city block and there is a very small nod to mixed use.  On the Foster Street side, Figs & Pigs is a very cool locally owned "micro-eatery" using fresh, local ingredients.  Having outside patio dining on the sidewalk is a great way to add to the sidewalk life in this area.  Great job!  We should all go out and support this business that is the only ray of light on this long, lonely walk.  On the third side of this mega-building, I found the entrance to Worcester Wares, another good locally owned business selling products that sells "everything Worcester".  I noticed open hours for this business are very limited so foot traffic on this side will also be limited.    

This is a HUGE city block and there is a very small nod to mixed use.  On the Foster Street side, Figs & Pigs is a very cool locally owned "micro-eatery" using fresh, local ingredients.  Having outside patio dining on the sidewalk is a great way to add to the sidewalk life in this area.  Great job!  We should all go out and support this business that is the only ray of light on this long, lonely walk.  On the third side of this mega-building, I found the entrance to Worcester Wares, another good locally owned business selling products that sells "everything Worcester".  I noticed open hours for this business are very limited so foot traffic on this side will also be limited.    

Here is the Commercial Street side of the DCU Center.  The main entrance is on the opposite side so I'm thinking that all these locked doors I am passing are only meant for emergency exit?  In any event, it's been about 45 minutes.  I'm in downtown Worcester and I might have passed by 3 people so far on this walk.  Even Worcester Wares on this side is not open around 10:30 on a Tuesday morning.  I love cities for the active street life, the people watching, the spontaneous interaction and conversation.  None of that here in the heart of downtown during the weekday.  Help me!  I think I'm having an existential crisis in the middle of the city this morning.  Send out some reinforcements.  I'm so lonely out here!  

Here is the Commercial Street side of the DCU Center.  The main entrance is on the opposite side so I'm thinking that all these locked doors I am passing are only meant for emergency exit?  In any event, it's been about 45 minutes.  I'm in downtown Worcester and I might have passed by 3 people so far on this walk.  Even Worcester Wares on this side is not open around 10:30 on a Tuesday morning.  I love cities for the active street life, the people watching, the spontaneous interaction and conversation.  None of that here in the heart of downtown during the weekday.  Help me!  I think I'm having an existential crisis in the middle of the city this morning.  Send out some reinforcements.  I'm so lonely out here!  

Forget the DCU Center on Commercial Street. What really drew me were some of the older buildings, a tiny hint of Jane Jacobs in this lonely space.  Check out Exchange Place across the street - the brick sidewalks, the storefronts with decorated awnings and up above, it looks like there are offices or apartments.  Now here is bit of mixed use in a sea of single use mega projects.

Forget the DCU Center on Commercial Street. What really drew me were some of the older buildings, a tiny hint of Jane Jacobs in this lonely space.  Check out Exchange Place across the street - the brick sidewalks, the storefronts with decorated awnings and up above, it looks like there are offices or apartments.  Now here is bit of mixed use in a sea of single use mega projects.

Even this pedestrian plaza on the last side of this block of a building is absolutely empty.  Maybe I should come back at lunch time in an hour?  Would the seats in this area possibly fill up during lunch?  I'm a bit skeptical but maybe that happens. Oh and there is the garage in the background.  We can just get back in our cars and drive away.  Before or after the Sting concert, why would anyone walk around in this surrounding neighborhood anyway?  It is probable that visitors come from out of town, park in the Major Taylor Municipal Lot, enter the building for the concert, exit and then leave.  How does the DCU Center as a  development project ever enhance the street life of our city?  

Even this pedestrian plaza on the last side of this block of a building is absolutely empty.  Maybe I should come back at lunch time in an hour?  Would the seats in this area possibly fill up during lunch?  I'm a bit skeptical but maybe that happens. Oh and there is the garage in the background.  We can just get back in our cars and drive away.  Before or after the Sting concert, why would anyone walk around in this surrounding neighborhood anyway?  It is probable that visitors come from out of town, park in the Major Taylor Municipal Lot, enter the building for the concert, exit and then leave.  How does the DCU Center as a  development project ever enhance the street life of our city?  

In the post World War II automobile and suburbs 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?