Homes still affordable in centrally located Worcester
By Thomas Grillo, Globe Correspondent, 8/12/2000
As home prices reach the stratosphere in the Boston area, Worcester prices have remained low. Consider these homes for sale on the city's desirable West Side: A Cape on Valley Hill Drive with four bedrooms, hardwood floors, a fireplace, two baths and a two-car garage for $169,900. Or a two-bedroom, one-bath ranch with an eat-in kitchen and a finished basement on Knowles Street for $124,900.
"I'm not sure why the explosive growth in property values has eluded Worcester, but our relatively low prices have created opportunities, especially for first-time buyers and others who want more for their money," said William Kelleher, president of Trust of New England/Better Homes and Gardens.
Often called the "Heart of the Commonwealth" because of its central location, Worcester is New England's second-largest city, with a 169,769 population. Last year, the city became more accessible when a new Worcester exit on the Massachusetts Turnpike opened at Route 146.
Officials believe the increased access to the city will ease the commute and spur the local economy, which has suffered, in part, because of the high commercial tax rate. The region also is crossed by routes 9 and 20, and Interstate 495 to the east, while Interstate 190 links the region to Fitchburg-Leominster and Interstate 290 links the city to Connecticut.
Since 1995, property values in Worcester have increased by 26 percent, according to Banker & Tradesman, a real estate and banking trade publication. Five years ago, the median sales price for a single-family home was $88,000. For the first six months of 2000, that number jumped to $119,000. In June, the median price soared to $126,000.
Worcester is still recovering from the jolt property owners suffered from 1989 to 1995 when the median price for a single-family home fell by 29 percent, from $124,500 to $88,000. But today, realtors are bullish on Worcester and credit the commuter rail for a surge in property values.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority recently expanded its commuter rail service to Boston with two additional trips from Worcester's renovated Union Station. And there are plans to add three more trips in November 2001.
"People have responded enthusiastically whenever we give them more opportunities to travel by rail," said T Secretary Kevin Sullivan. "On the Worcester line, our ridership expectations were shattered when we established service in 1994."
In addition to nearly a dozen colleges and universities, Worcester offers a variety of museums, including the Higgins Armory Museum, which displays one of the largest collections of arms and armor, the 60-acre New England Science Center and the Worcester Art Museum.
Realtors say typical buyers are new immigrants who are looking for a multifamily home. Boston and its suburban residents also are cashing in on soaring property values to buy larger single-family homes here.
Still, the city is struggling to meet the needs of its 25,000 schoolchildren. Like many urban school systems, Worcester has not fared well in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test scores. The failure rate among students in all grades and subjects exceeded the state average in last year's MCAS test, the most recent statistics available.
Among the most alarming statistics are that 64 percent of 10th-graders failed math, 67 percent of 8th-graders failed history and social studies and 67 percent of fourth-graders need improvement in English and language arts.
Claire Angers, deputy superintendent of schools, said officials have responded to the abysmal scores with the creation of an "MCAS Acceleration Plan." The strategy is designed to improve instruction to students.
And while violent crime fell by 10.4 percent statewide from 1998 to 1999, Worcester's violent crime rate dropped by 5 percent during the same period, according to the State Police. Worcester's murder rate doubled in the last two years.
Worcester Municipal Airport, located on the city's West Side, has undergone a $15 million modernization. It offers service to New York's Kennedy Airport, Atlanta and Philadelphia.
This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 8/12/2000.
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