Downtown Visions

WORCESTER — With a vision of new and renovated downtown buildings joined by clean, well-lit public spaces and accessible parking, the Worcester Business Development Corp. has refocused its attention on Worcester’s downtown core.

Armed with a new leader, Executive Director Craig L. Blais, and a new direction, the WBDC has cleared several large development projects off its plate.
Although it had been involved in a number of diverse projects since its founding in 1965, the WBDC had invested most of its resources and time in two major initiatives — development of the 75-acre Massachusetts Biotechnology Research Park on Belmont Hill and, in partnership with Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the transformation of 11 acres of brownfields into Gateway Park off Lincoln Square.

“This initiative is chapter three in the WBDC’s history,” said Mr. Blais, who has worked with the WBDC since 1999, and recently was named by the organization’s board of directors to replace David P. Forsberg. “We’ve divested ourselves of the suburbs and are exiting Gateway (Park). This is a very difficult project, and we’ll have to be creative.”

Over the course of the next several years, the WBDC hopes to:

•Renovate and revitalize the Telegram & Gazette complex between Franklin and Federal streets;

•Double the parking near The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts by building parking decks on the T&G’s Federal St. parking lot;

•Build a residential building in the newspaper’s parking lot;

•See the building at Main and Franklin streets renovated into a “boutique hotel”;

•And, develop the Salem Street parking lot, now used by patrons of the Worcester Public Library, for recreational use.

WBDC officials have referred to the proposed redevelopment area as the Theater District. The ultimate goal, officials said, is to connect these various elements with existing pieces, the nearby CitySquare project and with pedestrian-friendly corridors, to take better advantage of the downtown’s commercial, medical, retail and housing components.

It is an admittedly ambitious plan, said Timothy J. McGourthy, Worcester’s chief development officer.

“This is a very difficult plan that will require a lot of people working together,” Mr. McGourthy said, noting that the city wants to build on the success of the renovated Hanover Theatre, which draws at least 170,000 visitors annually. “We want to piggyback this project onto others. If we’re successful, people will drive downtown, park their cars and easily walk to multiple destinations.”

The redevelopment of the Telegram & Gazette properties on Franklin and Federal streets is at the forefront of the WBDC’s new initiative.

The newspaper’s downtown offices will be moved to the third and fifth floors of the Mechanics Bank Tower on Front Street this summer. The WBDC wants to renovate the Franklin Street properties, which it purchased last year for $300,000, into mixed-use space.

The WBDC is hoping that much of the 132,000-square-foot complex will house Quinsigamond Community College’s allied health and certificate programs.

The school is looking for downtown space and has put out a request for proposals. If the WBDC does not land a leasing contract with QCC, corporation officials are looking to fill the space with commercial and retail tenants.

WBDC officials also want to renovate the complex’s Federal Street building, which once housed the newspaper’s printing presses and mailing room, into restaurant and entertainment space.

There’s no cost estimate for the initiative, but the rehabilitation of the newspaper complex would run between $15 million and $17 million.

Those buildings need to be cleared of printing, chemical and other environmental contaminants.

“This project is going to cost quite a bit,” Mr. Blais said.

Mr. McGourthy said the city has been involved in the ongoing planning process, and would assist in securing funds to remediate environmental problems.

Mr. McGourthy said the City Council also approved $20 million last year for “streetscape” work, and said some of that funding could be used to spiff up or repair streets, sidewalks and lighting in the impacted area.

In the T&G’s Federal Street parking lot, the WBDC is looking to construct a four- or five-story building for housing.

The rest of the parking lot will be redeveloped with decks to provide for as many as 500 parking spaces. The lot now has 220 surface parking spots.

WBDC officials said expansion of parking is badly needed, given the dearth of spaces in the downtown area.

Another key to the plan is the rehabilitation of the so-called “500 block,” which is made up of the four buildings along Main Street between Federal and Franklin streets. The WBDC wants to work with the property owners and the city to fix up the structures and rid them of any code and health problems.

In the master plan that spells out the WBDC’s vision for downtown, officials also see the possibility of converting the Park Building at Main and Franklin streets — which the organization does not own — into a “boutique hotel.”

And, WBDC officials want to clean up Allen Court, the private way between the T&G complex and the 500 block. Business owners, residents and visitors have long complained of the health and litter issues that have plagued the Dumpster-filled street.

Beyond that, the WBDC would like to install lights to make the area more inviting at night, with an eye toward using alleyways and some parking lots as public meeting spaces. Cities such as Cambridge, Providence and others have created pedestrian-friendly spaces using methods the WBDC might emulate.

Somewhere along the timeline, the WBDC wants to work with the city to develop the Salem Street municipal parking lot, which abuts the Worcester Public Library.

Some envision recreational and civic use for the parcel.

Mr. McGourthy said there’s been interest from educational institutions about constructing an ice arena in the city and added the facility could be used by the Worcester Sharks for practice, or by college teams competing in the regional NCAA playoffs, which are often held at the DCU Center.

Mr. McGourthy said the city would be heavily involved in any plan to redevelop the Salem Street lot.

“It’s an important parcel, and we’d be very much interested in getting as much (economic) spin-off from any development that we put there,” he said.

If an ice rink is built there, library patrons would have to park at the former T&G lot and walk a block to the library.

Francis R. Carroll, the president and chairman of Carroll Enterprises, which operates the Small Business Service Bureau in Federal Square, cautioned that the project could be hindered by the poor economy.

“I just don’t see the economy coming back for some time,” he said.

Mr. Carroll said a key to the WBDC plan would be attracting a major restaurant that could successfully cater to the lunchtime crowd, as well as those attending events at The Hanover Theatre.

“You’ll see more people walking through the neighborhood, as you clean up some elements,” said Mr. Carroll.