The Failure of Urban Redevelopment and the Chance at Redemption: Worcester
October 22, 2013 § 4 Comments
Worcester, Massachusetts, is like pretty much every city in New England not named Boston or Providence, and kinda like those Easter Bunnies I used to get when I was a kid: hollow centre. The downtowns of Hartford, New Haven, Springfield, Worcester, etc. were done in by deindustrialisation and horrid, horrid urban redevelopment schemes. The urban redevelopments schemes of the 70s, in hindsight, look as though they were especially created to destroy urban centres, not save them. Boston’s Government Center, for example, is one of the most hideous examples of neo-brutalist architecture I’ve ever seen.
Worcester’s other problem is that it’s near Boston, less than an hour away. In fact, before I moved to Massachusetts, I thought Worcester was just a suburb of Boston. Boston is by far the biggest city in New England, over 5 times as big as the number 2 city, which just so happens to be Worcester (in fact, Worcester is the western boundary of the ridiculous Boston-Worcester-Manchester Combined Statistical Area). Worcester gets by, it is the home to several universities, including the University of Massachusetts Medical School, plus hospitals. But the downtown is a disaster.
Worcester attempted and failed miserably to redesign its downtown in the 70s. It made sense at the time, as Paul McMorrow points out in today’s Boston Globe, the city erected a shopping mall downtown to counter the growth of suburban shopping malls. This was a common tactic. In some places, usually Canadian cities, this worked. Vancouver, Toronto, Montréal, Calgary, Ottawa all have shopping malls downtown. And in those cities, the malls are successful. Those are also very large cities, Ottawa is the smallest and its urban centre is still over 1 million people. It is worth noting, however, that I cannot think, off the top of my head, of a large American city with a successful shopping mall at its core. Boston has a small shopping concourse in the Prudential Center, but that’s it.
Nevertheless, the Worcester Center Galleria was a valiant effort. But it failed. Twice.
The mall, when it was constructed, obliterated the street grid and landscape of downtown Worcester. But now, it’s been town down and the old street grid is being restored. The new CitySquare development is designed to do what most new urban redevelopments do: provide shopping, office space, and urban condos. All to convince a new, wealthy, demographic to move downtown, and stay downtown. McMorrow is hopeful for Worcester, as am I. And as Providence shows, urban redevelopment can be done and can be successful. But Worcester has the same problems as the rest of Massachusetts outside of Boston: the economy.
Three Connecticut cities, Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven, have taken empty downtown department stores and shopping malls and transformed them into sites for community college campuses. Since all three cities are each home to multiple existing four-year institutions it is difficult to measure the impact of this academic infusion but the idea of using academia to strengthen the downtown economic base bears studying. The town may well find that it has much to gain from cultivating the gown.
That’s interesting, I do my best to avoid in the inner cities of Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, unless pizza is involved in the latter city. However, it makes sense to turn over the downtown core to higher education, as many universities in larger cities have made the attempt to create downtown campuses (I’m thinking primarily of my alma mater, Simon Fraser University, which has a long-standing downtown campus to go with its suburban one).
I’m sure this would create an economic boon, because even though students are poor and in debt, they still spend money, especially at bars and restaurants and other service-type places. And many cities, including my hometown of Montréal, have piggy-backed on students moving into neighbourhoods, along with the artists, to make them hip, before the yuppies and families follow them. This happened with what used to be called the McGill Ghetto, for example, next to McGill University. What was a trendy, downtrodden student neighbourhood in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, is now an expensive, bourgeois neighbourhood today that students are increasingly priced out of.
[…] especially when it comes to questions of doing it right and doing it wrong (and chances at redemption). For the most part, the wave of urban redevelopment that hit North American cities in the 70s […]
Missing from this article are the opinions of older local residents, the decay of residential neighborhoods bordering downtown, the neglect of historic preservation strategies on Main Street and other downtown arteries like Green, Pleasant, and Chandler Streets, the role of social unraveling in declining neighborhoods, and the baleful effects on downtown neighborhoods of the bisecting of the downtown by Route 290. All o these stem in my view from the myopia and hubris of the planning leadership and public apathy and cynicism stemming from decades of top-down leadership and paternalism.