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Waking up Worcester

Officials, investors hope $300m plan sparks a revival

WORCESTER -- An urban shopping center didn't work. An outlets mall didn't either. But a new, $300 million plan to transform Worcester's half-empty downtown retail and parking complex into a thriving residential and commercial neighborhood may be the spark that the city has been seeking for 30 years.

That's the hope of city officials and Berkeley Investments Inc. of Boston, which this month purchased the sprawling 20-acre Worcester Common Outlets site for $30.3 million. Berkeley plans to build 900 condos and apartments, 450,000 square feet of office space, and 300,000 square feet of stores -- about half the retail space that now exists.

"This is a new, vibrant mixed-use project," said Young K. Park, president of Berkeley Investments. "It will be a catalyst for a revival of the entire downtown."

Worcester residents have heard that last part before. But Berkeley's first entree into this city -- expected to be accompanied by an estimated $50 million in public money -- comes at a time when a half-dozen significant improvement projects are underway.

"We do not believe one new project is going to be the panacea," said Philip J. Niddrie, chief development officer of the City of Worcester. "What we're trying to do is have a series of projects that play off each other."

New Worcester Center will have 3,700 parking spaces, 300 fewer than exist in the gigantic curved white garage that dominates the east side of the city today. That reduction reflects one aspect of what is considered efficient, modern development -- putting housing near public transportation and businesses. In this case that would mean improving access for new residents to nearby Union Station, which reopened in 2000 after a $38 million renovation and has 10 round-trip trains to Boston daily.

Last week, a day after Berkeley celebrated its purchase of the outlets complex from CIGNA Investments Inc., ground was broken on a $3.6 million intercity bus terminal that will be part of Union Station.

And that's not all:

Worcester Common, adjacent to the outlets, is getting a $6.5 million facelift by the city to make it friendlier to pedestrians, including hundreds of future residents.

Two blocks north of the outlets, the state broke ground last week on a 400,000-square-foot courthouse that abuts Main Street.

And, next door, Fargo Management LLC of Springfield is planning to break ground in August for a $22 million, 200-room Hilton Garden Inn. The hotel will connect to Worcester's successful Centrum Centre arena and convention center.

A new 500-car, five-story parking garage is planned near Union Station, serving commuters and patrons of the restaurants and shops that officials plan to lure to a handsomely restored but almost vacant train station. The station has only two substantial tenants, the Union Blues jazz and blues club and a restaurant, with room for many more.

City officials are paying Sasaki Associates Inc. $160,000 for what they call an economic development action agenda. The recommendations, which have already incorporated Berkeley's plans for the outlets complex, are to be released early next month.

"The big concept here is to reintegrate that area into the fabric of downtown," said Park. Half of Front Street was eliminated in the early 1970s, when the Worcester Center Galleria mall was built, and it will be restored.

The semicircular parking garage will be lopped off, and a medical office building added. An underground garage of 1,000 cars will be built to restore some of the eliminated spaces.

The decision to get rid of a large part of the garage that walls the entire area off from Union Station and the city's growing eastern portion is a big victory, said Alex Krieger, chairman of Chan Krieger & Associates, which made a similar recommendation as part of a Worcester renewal plan about 10 years ago.

"That was the last time Worcester tried to pick itself up by its bootstraps," Krieger said yesterday.

No one thought people would want to move to Worcester's depressed downtown 10 years ago. But today there's demand. Niddrie said almost 70 percent of prospective home buyers in the Worcester area are from Boston and its western suburbs -- drawn in part by the increased train access to Boston. Worcester officials hope that the 10 round-trip trains will increase to 18 soon.

National Development of Newton is building a $40 million luxury apartment complex, Arbor Point, near the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and Massachusetts Biotechnology Research Park, a little over a mile from downtown.

The idea of the Worcester Center Galleria, planned in the 1960s, was to serve residents in a region that was devoid of the kinds of malls that had drawn life from cities elsewhere. Filene's, Jordan Marsh, and Kennedy's all moved off of Main Street and into the new mall.

As malls with acres of parking were put up in quick succession in Auburn and the Greendale section of Worcester, to the north, the Galleria ceased to draw patrons.

"That was the beginning of the deterioration of commercial Main Street activity," said Niddrie.

Filene's left in the 1980s and located later in Auburn. Jordan Marsh followed Filene's out the door. New England Development purchased the site and opened the Worcester Common Fashion Outlets in 1994. But the Wrentham Village Premium Outlets soon drew customers from a market Worcester thought was its own.

The stores that lease space in New Worcester Center, to be built in phases over the next five to seven years, will be a combination of modest-sized stores and shops, catering mostly to the local population and -- unlike past concepts -- not dependent on thousands of shoppers driving into downtown.

North of the new courthouse and hotel is an 11-acre brownfields site that is being developed into Gateway Park, a 1-million-square-foot bioresearch park and mixed-use project, by Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Worcester Business Development Corp. The first building is expected to open in 2006.

If new regulations are approved next month by a council created by the Legislature, municipalities will be able to issue bonds for expensive improvements within designated districts and pay them off with taxes from developments that are generated.

Worcester is expected to be the first city in the Commonwealth to take advantage of the new financial opportunity.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at

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