WORCESTER, Mass. — Though College of the Holy Cross was founded here in 1843, and eight other prominent institutions of higher learning followed, it’s taken most of the last two centuries for this sizable New England city to consider itself a college town.
It does so now. From one end of the city’s 245-acre central core to the other, Worcesterâ€™s primary boulevards are steadily filling up with the civic equipment that is attracting new residents, and keeps the 35,000 college students who study and live here satisfied. They include a busy public transit hub, comfortable and affordable housing, new restaurants and watering holes, computer stores and coffee shops, a world class performing arts theater, state-of-the-art biotech research facilities, incubators and office space for start-up companies, and renovated parks, including one alongside City Hall with an ice rink larger than the one in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center.
Today the New York Times published my article on Worcester’s redevelopment. I am familiar with the city. A long time ago I dated a young woman who attended Clark University, one of the city’s fine colleges. Worcester was a beat up place at the time, certainly not the kind of city smart new college graduates thought they’d settle in. Worcester is no longer that city and it shows.
The newest project in Worcester’s revitalization portfolio is CitySquare, a $565 million, 12-acre mixed use development just east of City Hall. It replaces a two-story, 1 million square-foot downtown shopping mall that took up almost 10 percent of Worcesterâ€™s central business district.
The former Worcester Center Galleria, built at a cost of $127 million, thrived for a decade after it opened in 1971, and then went dark by the turn of the century. The mall was demolished in 2012. In the two years since, Worcester spent $59 million burying utilities, preparing building sites for new construction, and reconstructing and connecting four streets in the district to the cityâ€™s street grid.
Market interest in CitySquare has been strong, according to city data. In 2013, Unum, a Tennessee-based insurer, opened a $76 million, 214,000-square-foot, seven-story office tower alongside an 860-space parking garage. The St. Vincent Cancer and Wellness Center finished a $30 million, 66,000-square-foot treatment facility.
Across the street, the Worcester Regional Transit Authority built a $14 million, 14,000-square-foot bus transit hub that is alongside the cityâ€™s 103-year-old Union Station that was reopened in 2000 after a $32 million renovation. The station is a stop on Amtrakâ€™s Lake Shore Limited between Boston and Chicago, and hosts 20 commuter trains daily to and from Boston that serve 1,500 passengers.
In 2014, the city and The Hanover Insurance Group, Inc., the primary landholder and CitySquare development manager, finished agreements with Roseland Property Company to build 370 market rate rental apartments in a cluster of five-story residential buildings at a cost of $90 million. The first 263,479-square-foot building will hold 239 apartments. The second 142,130-square-foot building will hold 131 apartments.
Next door to the apartments will be a $36 million, six-story, 126,000-square-foot, 150-room Marriott hotel.Â The hotel sits atop a two-level, 243,000-square-foot parking deck large enough for 550 vehicles. Construction of the parking deck is underway. Construction of the residential project is scheduled to start in the spring of 2015. The hotel construction follows.
City Square Jumping Off Point
Just a single 1.2-acre parcel in City Square remains undeveloped. City officials and Hanover executives said they were marketing the land as a prime downtown site for a new office tower, with spaces for ground floor retail.Â â€œFor so many years the old mall just served as a big road block for people and vehicles in our downtown. You couldnâ€™t walk from City Hall to the train station. It just killed the spirit of this city and was a big turn off for students,â€ said Michael Traynor, Worcesterâ€™s chief development officer. â€œNow with the mall gone, new buildings in place, new streets, new businesses settling there, itâ€™s like â€˜Welcome to the 21st century economy.â€
One reason that CitySquare is developing so quickly is that Worcester had a lot of practice over the last decade rebuilding its downtown, with considerable help from the cityâ€™s colleges and universities.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1865, developed a partnership with the Worcester Business Development Corporation to turn an 11-acre parcel on the edge of its 6,000-student campus into a life sciences teaching, research, laboratory, and office complex called Gateway Park. The university has invested over $110 million in the project to build the $40 million, 125,000-square-foot WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center that opened in 2007. Next door is a new $32 million, 92,000 square foot, four-story bio-engineering academic and research building.Â Gateway Park, located at the intersection with I-290, includes a $20 million, 128-room Courtyard by Marriott, an $11 million parking deck, and a $39 million, 89,000-square-foot, 258-bed dormitory that opened in 2013. A $10 million, 100-room Hampton Inn is under construction.
In 2009, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences opened a new campus in downtown Worcester, renovating an existing office building to fit classrooms, two auditoriums, laboratories, and faculty offices. In 2010, the university acquired the 250,000-square-foot downtown Crowne Plaza Hotel for student housing and for two public vision and dental health clinics.
The pharmacy collegeâ€™s campus is just down the street from the $180 million, 427,000-square-foot Worcester Trial Court, the largest state court building in Massachusetts, which opened in 2007. Just a few blocks away is the 110-year-old, 2,300-seat Hanover Theater for the Performing Arts, renovated in 2008 at a cost of $32 million, all of it raised in a private community-wide capital campaign.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Worcesterâ€™s steady redevelopment, fostered by well over $1.3 billion in public and private investment, is producing metrics that are at the top of urban demographic and economic performance in New England. The city’s population has climbed to over 182,000 residents, up 13 percent from its modern low of under 162,000 in 1990. Worcester is now the second largest city in New England.
The jobless rate in October, 5.6 percent, is lower than the state’s unemployment rate of 6 percent. The city added 6,900 new jobs from October 2013 to October 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and average wages during that period increased nearly 5 percent.
Quinsigamond Community College also is involved in the cityâ€™s resurgence.Â In 2014 the two-year college expanded its campus to a 135,000 square-foot-building that once served as the newsroom and printing facility for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the cityâ€™s daily newspaper. The building on Franklin Street, across from City Hall, was renovated at a cost of $40 million. The collegeâ€™s laboratories and training suites occupy 73,000 square feet of the 135,000-square-foot, four-story building, enough space to train 2,000 students.
No Cafeteria in New Building
In a telling detail that illustrates just how serious college administrators are about their downtown mission, the renovation plan deliberately ignored room for a cafeteria. â€œWe wanted to be downtown,â€ said Gail Carberry, Quinsigamondâ€™s president. â€œWe wanted to be part of the cityâ€™s development, to be recognized as a college town, which we are. Part of our plan was to put feet on the street. We didnâ€™t get aggressive about cafes and cafeterias. We want students to frequent the restaurants and coffee shops that are already here.â€
A generation ago Worcesterâ€™s weary downtown served as an impediment to attracting students, said college administrators. Today, the cityâ€™s sidewalks and stories are alive with shoppers, office workers, and students.
â€œWe havenâ€™t rushed to rebuild the city,â€ said Frederick Eppinger, the president and chief executive of The Hanover Insurance Group, the $5 billion publicly traded company that employs 5,200 people, 2,000 of them in Worcester, its home. â€œWeâ€™ve done it one section of the city at a time so people, particularly our students, can see the change and feel the momentum.â€
— Keith Schneider