Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Worcester's next steps

I'm reprinting my Community Voices This Land blog posts here:

WORCESTER -- It's painful to walk around the common here and see the devastation still apparent from urban renewal -- the vacant parcels, the surface parking lots, the double-wide arterials, the monstrosity of the Galleria mall -- a hulking white spaceship plopped downtown as if it was a deliberate attempt to destroy the urban fabric. But perhaps equally sad has been the repeated attempts to recover from that era --not only urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s but the delcine of manufacturing and the flight to the suburbs -- with reinventions and grand new schemes aimed at finally putting the City of Seven Hills back on the map. If only -- and this is what cities like New Haven are thinking, too -- some of the magic of Providence could catch on.
So it is with guarded optimism that Worcester is wecloming yet another plan to breathe new life into downtown, based around the rehabilitated Hanover Theatre, and covered by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette -- itself a property that is poised to be part of surgical but ambitious redevelopment of the area. The Worcester Business Development Corporation, which has been successful retrofitting the area north of downtown, at the site of a shuttered vocational school, with new and rehabilitated space for bio-tech and life sciences, is signing a memorandum of understanding with the city to assess how the emerging "theatre district" might be embellished and reconfigured. The Cambridge firm of Chan, Krieger-NBBJ has been hired to draw a master plan. All of it will accompany the ongoing redevelopment of the Galleria mall, the $583 million CitySquare project set in motion initially by Young Park and Berkeley Investments, and now an undertaking of Hanover Insurance Co.'s Opus Investments Management group. In that redevelopment, new towers will be accompanied by the demolition of some of the fantastically ugly structured parking and the squat mall section that was blocks Front Street like a giant tree lying across the road. Opening that street up so it once again leads to the elegant Union Station will be like Worcester's own version of the dismantling of the elevated Central Artery (if anybody still remembers that).
But this is a tricky business, trying to cultivate downtown living in Worcester, given the current market -- and also the legacy of urban renewal, which messed things up so much in the first place. Civic leaders are essentially saying trust us, we'll get it right this time. There isn't much appetite for tearing down buildings if they have the slightest historical significance, or using eminent domain, ever since the Kelo case prompted by failed redevelopment efforts in New London. The signs at the CitySquare construction site read, "Coming Soon: Mixed Use." What that really means is "Coming Soon: More People." Worcester can only hope, and keep the shoulder to the wheel.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Roaring Ireland

Recently returned from Ireland, to report that the Celtic Tiger is still showing strength. The taxi drivers all bemoaned the recession in that way that taxi drivers do. The Irish Times business section ran headlines like "Cleaning up after the bust," the Irish banks and the Euro remain in tumult, and the roadside is dotted with the equivalent of foreclosure notices. But the streets and the pubs were full in Dublin. Plenty of tourists and unusually sunny weather. The way down probably felt more intense because of the heights that had been achieved.
I was in Dublin presenting at the 1st international Conference on Age-Friendly Cities, co-sponsored by the World Health Organization, the International Federation on Ageing, and Ireland's Age Friendly County Programme. Age-friendly cities are those that accomodate the growing cohort of older persons -- including aging baby boomers like me -- and allow them to age in place, walk or take transit. In other words, the way great urban neighborhoods function for anyone. I suggested in my talk that the 21st century city needed both attention at the neighborhood scale using the urban owner's manual left by Jane Jacobs, and a vision for regional planning and infrastructure demonstrated by Robert Moses. The concept of age-friendly cities is taking hold especially in countries with low fertility rates and where the older population is quite out of balance with under-35 year olds.
P.s. Hotel of choice in Dublin? The Merrion, fashioned out of four Georgian townhouses at the streetfront, and with fully modern facilities out back, a nice adapative re-use, and exceptionally attentive service. A nap was prerequisite by the fireplace in the lobby sitting area, having arrived at 5:20 a.m. on the short Aer Lingus flight from Boston.