Jane Jacobs In The Woo Nominates Crompton Place in Worcester, Massachusetts for Strong Towns "Strongest Infrastructure Project"

In honor of urban theorist Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday this past May,” Jane Jacobs in the Woo”[1] formed to inaugurate a full year of community conversations and actions about building a vibrant Worcester, Massachusetts.  Jane Jacobs in the Woo is pleased to nominate Crompton Place, a locally owned, mixed-use development in Worcester’s up-and-coming Canal District neighborhood for Strong Towns' Best Infrastructure Project. Listed on the national historic register in 1980, this property was the site of Crompton Loom Works famous for its textile and invention of an innovative power loom.

Crompton Place at 138 Green Street in the Canal District of Worcester, Massachusetts in the evening light.

Crompton Place at 138 Green Street in the Canal District of Worcester, Massachusetts in the evening light.

Crompton Place demonstrates the core Strong Towns principles in the following ways:

  • Creative and adaptive reuse of Crompton Loom Works, an historical  former industrial textile mill purchased in 2007 by a local small-scale developer who actually lives on-site  
  • Mixed use development combining retail and service businesses, an artisanal bread bakery, a non-profit home ownership center, the Blackstone Canal Historical Museum and residential units in the process of being developed on the top floor  
  • Incremental pace of development
  • Celebration and promotion of small, locally owned businesses
  • Project integration and  enhancer of "walkability" within the Canal District neighborhood: hosting weekly Canal District Farmers Market, free summer Thursday evening outdoor music concerts and free horse and wagon tours led by local high school students trained to narrate the history of the neighborhood and the Blackstone Canal.

In this proposal, we offer a welcoming introduction to our city of Worcester, Massachusetts, describe Crompton Place project in detail and then link this project to the community-driven initiatives revitalizing the Canal District and the historic Blackstone River Valley Historical Park from Worcester to Providence, Rhode Island.

Worcester, Massachusetts

As the second largest city in New England and approximately 40 miles west of Boston, Worcester, Massachusetts, boasts a population of 181,045 (2010 Census) in 38 square miles.  Worcester is known as the “Heart of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” due to its location in the center of the state and its easy proximity to other major cities such as Providence, Rhode Island and Hartford, Connecticut.  Worcester has been a city of many “firsts” – first mass produced Valentine’s Day cards, first candlepin bowling, first monkey wrench, David Clark Company’s first pressurized space suits, Harvey Ball’s famous yellow smiley face, Robert Goddard’s development of the liquid fueled rocket first launched in adjacent Auburn, the first National Women’s Rights Convention held in 1850 and even the place where shredded wheat originated.   

In May 2016, Worcester was featured in a New York Times Magazine article, “What Happened to Worcester” where author Adam Davidson traced his immigrant family roots, attributing their success to the vast economic and educational opportunities offered in our city.  Worcester still serves as a point of entry for new immigrants from Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Bhutan, Brazil, Albania and elsewhere and even hosts one of the largest Ghanaian communities in the country. Our sturdy wooden triple-deckers could house three generations of a working class family.  Our diners offered home cooked meals.  Our plethora of manufacturing factories once provided entry level jobs for immigrants looking for work. 

Worcester emerged as an industrial powerhouse over 150 years ago with a diversified manufacturing portfolio of machines, machine tools, textiles, power looms and wire products. By capitalizing on our economic assets, Worcester was able to weather the industrial decline that negatively impacted so many other mid-sized single-industry manufacturing cities.  Currently, Worcester’s key employment sectors include higher education with eight universities and colleges within Worcester’s borders, health care as well as biotechnology research and manufacturing at Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Gateway Park and Massachusetts Biotechnology Research Park at University of Massachusetts Medical School.

In the wake of the urban renewal craze, massive highway construction boom and growth of suburbs that took place nationwide in the 1950s and 1960s, Worcester chose the route of auto-centric development razing large tracts of historic infrastructure downtown to build single-use mega-projects with adjacent parking garages.  Route 290, a highway constructed in the 1960s cut off the east side neighborhoods from the core.  The DCU Convention Center and Saint Vincent Hospital are just two examples of “drive-park-enter” mega-projects that have resulted in deadened street life in Worcester’s Downtown.  

Crompton Place: A Shining Example of Jane Jacobs and Strong Town Principles

 As one of the oldest remaining industrial buildings in Worcester, the former Crompton Loom Works was home to the textile manufacturer, the Crompton Corporation until 1915.  William Crompton’s invention of an innovative power loom served the growing manufacturing needs of the textile industry nationwide.  When local resident Dino Larusso purchased this property in 2007, he had a vision of a creative, adaptive reuse of the historic property to build the kind of vibrant neighborhood he remembered when he was young. 

On Preservation Worcester's Canal District Walking Tour, Crompton Place (formerly Crompton Loom Works)  is stop #7.

On Preservation Worcester's Canal District Walking Tour, Crompton Place (formerly Crompton Loom Works)  is stop #7.

 Dino Larusso greeted visitors this past summer when he was laying the bricks for the outdoor patio in the back.  He mixed cement in the hot summer days, giving new meaning to the term “sweat equity”.  It took over six weeks for Dino to complete the patio and install a new water fountain at the back side of the property.  It is this incremental slow pace of “unslumming” that Jane Jacobs applauded. Unlike the infusion of huge amounts of public capital support other mega-projects receive, 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 by hand!

The brick patio that Dino built by hand!

Crompton Place is a stellar model of a mixed-use development project that is being built incrementally brick-by-brick.  Dino is renovating the top floor to become housing units. The two bottom floors house a variety of locally owned retailers and service businesses including an artisanal bread bakery, a salon, a barber shop, a home ownership non-profit counseling center, a specialized gift store, and a collective of antiques, crafts and “old stuff” vendors. Dino has chosen and carefully cultivated tenants who would support his community-focused vision and promote the ideals of “buying local”. 

Meet some of the tenants:

Crompton Collective

Amy Lynn Chase, founder and visionary of  the Crompton Collective on the first floor, has channeled her interest in quirkiness to offer over ninety vending spaces for local artists, crafters, antique and collectibles dealers.  The 5000 square foot White Room serves as a community space available for weddings, special events and community happenings.  In October, the Worcester Public Library foundation will be featuring an evening Celebration of Authors in the space. 

Amy Lynn Chase, founder and visionary of  the Crompton Collective on the first floor, has channeled her interest in quirkiness to offer over ninety vending spaces for local artists, crafters, antique and collectibles dealers.  The 5000 square foot White Room serves as a community space available for weddings, special events and community happenings.  In October, the Worcester Public Library foundation will be featuring an evening Celebration of Authors in the space. 

View the personality of the vendor stalls in the Crompton Collective!  Locals come here to pick up the unusual gift but the Crompton Collective has also emerged as a destination outing for out-of-town visitors.

View the personality of the vendor stalls in the Crompton Collective!  Locals come here to pick up the unusual gift but the Crompton Collective has also emerged as a destination outing for out-of-town visitors.

The new "kid on the block", Seed To Stem is another unique gift shop inspired by the two artist owners.  The store features items related to the natural world such as terrariums and stone, clay, wood and plants sculptures.

The new "kid on the block", Seed To Stem is another unique gift shop inspired by the two artist owners.  The store features items related to the natural world such as terrariums and stone, clay, wood and plants sculptures.

One of two artisanal bread bakeries in Worcester, Birch Tree Bread Company has become a collective meeting space for many Worcesterites. Some locals will stay here for long stretches of time to work, eat bread or drink tea and coffee.  Note the details of the building that have been restored - the original wooden plank floor boards, the poles and balusters and exposed duct work from the ceilings.

One of two artisanal bread bakeries in Worcester, Birch Tree Bread Company has become a collective meeting space for many Worcesterites. Some locals will stay here for long stretches of time to work, eat bread or drink tea and coffee.  Note the details of the building that have been restored - the original wooden plank floor boards, the poles and balusters and exposed duct work from the ceilings.

The space is large, the tone is relaxed, the couches are comfortable... a perfect community space.  Local musicians offer free concerts in this main room at Birch Tree.

The space is large, the tone is relaxed, the couches are comfortable... a perfect community space.  Local musicians offer free concerts in this main room at Birch Tree.

Gallery space for displaying the artwork of local artists.  The bags of fresh bread that have just been baked will soon be sent to restaurants throughout the city.

Gallery space for displaying the artwork of local artists.  The bags of fresh bread that have just been baked will soon be sent to restaurants throughout the city.

"Experience a little bit of Newbury Street right here in Worcester"

"Experience a little bit of Newbury Street right here in Worcester"

Shave.. Cut...Style

Shave.. Cut...Style

A program run by Oak Hill Community Development Corporation to assist low and moderate income Worcester residents in purchasing and retaining a home

A program run by Oak Hill Community Development Corporation to assist low and moderate income Worcester residents in purchasing and retaining a home

Prepare...Invest...Retain

Prepare...Invest...Retain

Blackstone Canal Historical Museum

A curated exhibit along the length of the corridor walls leading to Birch Tree Bread Company explores the history of the Blackstone Canal and its link to Worcester's successful industrial past.

A curated exhibit along the length of the corridor walls leading to Birch Tree Bread Company explores the history of the Blackstone Canal and its link to Worcester's successful industrial past.

Dino’s vision mirrors the ideas of his neighboring business owners in the Canal District Alliance. Their goal was to build a mixed-use, twenty-four-hour neighborhood where people live, work, play, drink and eat.  Crompton Place has played a key role in creating a livable neighborhood by ensuring that people who entered the building also had reasons to be outside in order to contribute to the vibrancy of the Canal District streets.

Crompton Place encourages neighborhood foot traffic and connection in these ways:

Canal District Farmer's Market

In light of her mission to link Worcester residents to locally owned businesses, Amy Lynn Chase of the Crompton Collective successfully organizes the Canal District Farmer’s Market held in the parking lot of Crompton Place.  The market brings farmers in Central Massachusetts and food vendors to the city to meet directly with local residents interested in purchasing fresh produce, honey, meat and specialty foods.  The market is open every Saturday morning for the whole year and Thursday evenings in the summer.  The Saturday market moves to the White Room in the winter months.  Please view this video:

Summer Thursday Evening Free Music Concerts

Parking lot is converted into a people-filled concert hall.  Free concerts bring people down to the Canal District every Thursday evening in the summer.

Parking lot is converted into a people-filled concert hall.  Free concerts bring people down to the Canal District every Thursday evening in the summer.

A bit of creative placemaking... This mural painted on the exterior back wall of Crompton Place depicts this neighborhood's connection to the waters of the Blackstone canal and river.

A bit of creative placemaking... This mural painted on the exterior back wall of Crompton Place depicts this neighborhood's connection to the waters of the Blackstone canal and river.

Horse and Wagon Tours

During the summer, South High Community School students trained as docents and interpreters, lead horse and wagons tours of the Canal District.  The tours begin in the parking lot of Crompton Place.

During the summer, South High Community School students trained as docents and interpreters, lead horse and wagons tours of the Canal District.  The tours begin in the parking lot of Crompton Place.

Come on tour with our students!

The Revival of the Canal District

Dino Larusso’s thoughtful, slow and careful development of Crompton Place serves as a shining example of the kind of project that makes a living neighborhood and city.  However, Dino’s enterprise is embedded in a larger narrative of a neighborhood and the collective private-public efforts to bring it back to life.  “It takes a village to raise a child ”speaks the African proverb.  We can also declare, “It takes a village to raise a neighborhood!”

In 1828, Worcester opened the Blackstone Canal originating in the neighborhood now known as the Canal District.  Although the canal was only in operation for twenty years, it provided an accessible waterway route so that manufactured goods could be transported down the Blackstone River to the port in Providence, Rhode Island.  During this time period, city population soared, factories churned out manufactured goods due in large part, to the transportation linkage of the canal.  This waterway laid the foundation for Worcester to emerge as a key leader in the American industrial revolution in the mid-19th century. 

The construction of railroads in the 1830s pushed aside the use of the canal as the primary transportation network.  Consequently, by the 1850s, the Blackstone Canal in the neighborhood had become a cesspool of city sewage and later on a conduit to the wastewater treatment plant.  Through the 1960s, the neighborhood was partially composed of bustling Jewish retail and restaurant businesses until the Jewish community migrated to the wealthier west side of the city. By the 1990s, this economically stagnant neighborhood featured a struggling commercial district and underutilized old mill buildings.  It was easy to forget that the canal was ever there especially after Harding Street was built on top of it.

FREE THE BLACKSTONE!!
— the rallying cry of the Canal District Alliance and other interested residents
Artist's rendition of the Canal District once the Canal is reopened.  In 2003, the city worked with neighborhood businesses and activists 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.   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 reopened.  In 2003, the city worked with neighborhood businesses and activists 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.   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 Blackstone Canal is still not open more than a decade later.  However, something miraculous happened!  Just talking and dreaming about the canal stimulated excitement for this neglected neighborhood.  One Worcester business leader purchased a closed elementary school, converted it to apartments and moved into the renovated building himself to be a part of the renaissance.  Another unused furniture factory was converted into the Canal Loft Apartments.  Locals began to open up new restaurants and bars. The Canal District Alliance working together with Representative Jim McGovern was instrumental in attracting 7.6 million in federal stimulus funds for needed streetscape improvements including street redesigns, tree plantings and the placement of dedicated bike lanes.  The city also offered a storefront improvement load fund to assist property owners in facade improvements in the retail district on Water Street. It is within this context, climate and timeline that Dino purchased the Crompton building on Green Street in 2007.

Since 2000, citizen-led volunteer efforts have been directed to reviving the Canal District and advocating to re-create the canal.  During the annual Canalfest, Harding Street is closed to traffic and a makeshift canal is set up (see photo) to give locals a taste of what it would be like to reopen the canal.  Local residents have also organized the yearly Canal Diggers 5k Road Race.  This past summer, the Water Street businesses organized a once-a-month Canal District Art Walk.  The sidewalks exploded with life.  Musicians jam and local artists set up displays of their work.  People spill out into the sidewalks to experience the action.

Since 2000, citizen-led volunteer efforts have been directed to reviving the Canal District and advocating to re-create the canal.  During the annual Canalfest, Harding Street is closed to traffic and a makeshift canal is set up (see photo) to give locals a taste of what it would be like to reopen the canal.  Local residents have also organized the yearly Canal Diggers 5k Road Race.  This past summer, the Water Street businesses organized a once-a-month Canal District Art Walk.  The sidewalks exploded with life.  Musicians jam and local artists set up displays of their work.  People spill out into the sidewalks to experience the action.

Just as one can’t separate the success of Crompton Place from the collective efforts to revitalize the surrounding neighborhood, one can’t separate the narrative of the Canal District from its historical link to the forty-five mile Blackstone River Valley corridor from Worcester to Providence.  In 1996, Worcester was made a member of the John J. Chafee Blackstone Valley Heritage Corridor.  In 2014, President Barak Obama signed into law the establishment of the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park. 

Construction of the Blackstone Heritage Corridor Visitor's Center in Worcester's Quinsigamond Village is expected to be completed by 2017.  The center is one link in the chain from Union Station and the Canal District down to Providence, Rhodes Island.  Dedicated bike lanes on city streets and separate bike paths link the Canal District neighborhood past this new development to Millbury, Massachusetts.  The Blackstone River Bikeway, once completed, will enable bicyclists to make the 45 mile journey from Worcester's Union Station to Providence, Rhode Island.

Construction of the Blackstone Heritage Corridor Visitor's Center in Worcester's Quinsigamond Village is expected to be completed by 2017.  The center is one link in the chain from Union Station and the Canal District down to Providence, Rhodes Island.  Dedicated bike lanes on city streets and separate bike paths link the Canal District neighborhood past this new development to Millbury, Massachusetts.  The Blackstone River Bikeway, once completed, will enable bicyclists to make the 45 mile journey from Worcester's Union Station to Providence, Rhode Island.

Worcester in general and the Canal District especially has come far in just 16 years.  Once economically distressed with a building stock that was underutilized and deteriorating, now the Canal District is hopping with new life.  Local residents such as Dino Larusso have played key roles in this revitalization.  Public funds have been invested in street redesign and facade improvements.  A neighborhood once avoided now has become a destination and place for residents to gather.  Jane Jacobs in the Woo hopes that Strong Towns will have the opportunity to spend some time in our city, the Canal District neighborhood, eat some bread at Crompton Place's Birch Tree Bakery and go on a horse and wagon tour.  We will welcome you any time.

 

 

 

[1] “The Woo” is a local nickname for our city, Worcester, Massachusetts