Downtown Worcester hockey rink plan no sure shot

WORCESTER – A proposal to build a two-rink indoor hockey complex next to the city’s main library is drawing opposition from some library supporters who fear the loss of parking at the downtown facility and others who question the size and design of the project.

The plan, which has not yet been formally presented to the City Council or zoning board, is being quietly promoted by the Worcester Business Development Corp. as a way to bring activity to the section of downtown, which, despite steady traffic at the library, is largely deserted at night and on weekends.

People in the area’s hockey community — where the idea has circulated for a few years — say there is a strong market for ice time locally among college and high school teams that now use two 40-year-old state-owned rinks in the area or travel to a private six-rink Marlboro complex for practice and games.

Supporters also say youth hockey tournaments would attract teams from around the region and lure business to city hotels and restaurants; the Worcester Sharks professional minor league hockey team would also likely practice at the complex, a few blocks from the CitySquare development.

Craig L. Blais, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit WBDC, said the facility would fit in with the goals of the WBDC’s forthcoming Theater District master plan of creating complementary activities, including — theater, recreation and education — to city blocks that are now little frequented after dark.

“This would bring in hockey moms, people who come to the games and people who might go to a sports pub afterward,” Mr. Blais said. “We’re trying to create a district that has multiple things going on.”

Critics say the more than 2-acre footprint of the building, with two regulation-size rinks facing each other over a small entrance and core area, would be unwelcoming to pedestrians at street level and leave no room for other uses such as retail shops. The main rink would have seating for 800 to 1,000.

The tentative parking plan — which entails a pedestrian walkway over Salem Street to a four-story parking garage behind The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts and the old Telegram & Gazette building on Federal Street — has also come under fire as awkward and unusable.

“Those are city killers,” said Stephan Mita, a part-time design consultant from Worcester with an architecture degree and an interest in downtown redevelopment. “Those are the things that make the difference between successful downtowns and unsuccessful downtowns. Buildings like that kill a neighborhood. What makes great cities is great streets. Does this plan do that?”

The proposal depends on the sale or granting of the 275-spot city parking lot next to the library to a developer, which could be the WBDC or the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, the quasi-public state development agency and bank. If the WBDC develops the property, it would turn the facility over to a private owner.

Either way, the property transfer would have to be approved by the City Council, where at least one councilor is vowing to push the plan, which could cost up to $20 million to bring to fruition.

“This is an unbelievable idea. Worcester is one of the great underserved hockey markets,” said Councilor-at-large Michael J. Germain, a former Holy Cross hockey star and St. Peter-Marian Central Catholic High School hockey coach. “I don’t think a lot of people in City Hall have a lot of experience with hockey and youth hockey and because of that we’ve continually missed the boat when it comes to economic development.”

College officials are also lobbying for the plan.

John Brissette, chairman of the Worcester State University board of trustees, said the Worcester State hockey team has outgrown the 1970s-era Horgan Arena in Auburn where it now practices and plays, but the school cannot afford to build its own rink.

“We want to help the city grow downtown, and one of the things we want to do is get students downtown,” Mr. Brissette said.

The library board has not yet taken an official position, though last week it established a task force on the hockey project.

Board chairman Kevin Dowd said that with the proposal still in the preliminary stage, “I don’t feel that the plan as it’s developing is a threat to the library.”

“But parking is a big concern to us, not only now but in the future,” Mr. Dowd said, noting that one of the main jobs of the task force will be to survey patrons and employees’ parking needs.

Internally, several board members have privately been expressing opposition to the project, saying it would rob the library, which reported 800,000 visitors last year, of crucial parking spots.

Deborah Packard, a board member and executive director of Preservation Worcester, agreed that the parking lot should be developed.

“But in terms of the skating rink idea, I don’t know,” Ms. Packard said, noting that she was speaking in her capacity as head of Preservation Worcester. “We would want to see how the building looks and how it fits into the area.”

One opponent is Nicole Apostola, a civic activist and library booster who writes a blog about city issues in which she has criticized the hockey rink plan.

In an interview, Ms. Apostola said she accepts that the parking lot is larger than the library needs and not the best use of the land. But she questioned whether a hockey complex would achieve the WBDC’s stated goals of increasing residency and foot traffic in that part of downtown.

“I want to see a plan that would really show how we achieve a true mix of office, residential and retail on that site, which is what the WBDC said is the goal,” Ms. Apostola said. “I don’t see how a hockey arena fits into that.”

She said she also fears that the proposed hockey complex, as presented to the library board in June, would reduce on-site parking for library patrons, who often have small children and armloads of books to carry.

Mr. Blais said WBDC officials recognize the library’s needs for parking and would include 130 surface parking spots for the library and the YWCA.

Rather than just criticize the WBDC plan, Ms. Apostola and Mr. Mita have been drawing up a plan of their own. They propose a multistory building along the Salem Street side of the parking lot with an attached parking deck on the YWCA side of the property.

The parking structure would have retail on the ground floor, as would the building. The upper stories of the building could be used for office space or residential.

City officials say they are still open to other proposals for the library parking lot parcel.

The idea for a hockey center originated during the WBDC’s meetings earlier this year with representatives of Worcester State, Assumption College and Worcester Academy, with the school officials expressing interest in a modern hockey complex, according to Mr. Brissette, the Worcester State board chairman.

Timothy J. McGourthy, the city’s chief development officer, said city officials are working with the WBDC on the master plan for the area and welcomes its ideas as a major property owner there.

“It’s a positive that we can work with a private partner on a plan for the whole area, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only voice we need to hear from,” Mr. McGourthy said. “As we’ve looked at that parking lot, the hockey rink was one idea floated that has supporters, but we’re looking forward to hearing lots of other ideas to bring new vitality to that area.”

Mr. McGourthy said that, while retail and residential space are indeed important for the district, a vibrant neighborhood needs more than just places to live and shop.

“There’s a lot activity happening in that district already,” he said. “How do we connect it?”

Ms. Apostola, the civic activist, noted that the parcel that would house the hockey arena is public land, “and I personally would like to see the public involved in the discussions of the redevelopment of that land.”