January 24, 2013

Worcester Theater District Plan Welcomed, Parking Questioned

Rick Saia
Timothy McGourthy, Worcester's economic development director, answers questions last night during the public hearing on the city's theater district master plan, held at the Hanover Theatre.

On a bitterly cold evening, the proposed master plan for a downtown theater district in Worcester received a largely warm reception from about 150 people last night inside the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts.

The plan, which would develop the 30-acres surrounding the theater into a multiple-use district between City Hall, McGrath Boulevard, and Main and Myrtle streets, outlines eight "action steps," which include:

• Increasing the stock of market-rate and student housing in the district;

• Attracting private and institutional investment from educational and cultural institutions;

• Improving a pedestrian networking of alleys and shared streets;

• Creating more public parking; and

• Increasing nighttime recreational activity.

The plan would also make the area more pedestrian friendly by, for example, turning Federal Street – which connects Main and Portland streets – into a "pedestrian spine" and public plaza with ground-floor retail and entertainment uses. Also, new connections are proposed for the former Telegram & Gazette building parking lot: a plaza connecting a new parking garage with Federal Street and a pedestrian path connecting the exit door on the north side of the Hanover Theatre with Federal Street.

The key question, said Timothy McGourthy, the city's economic development director, is "How do we create vibrancy? We want to make sure all of these elements are connected."

While the plan received several endorsements during the two-hour forum, a few expressed concerns about parking. Judy Finkel, a member of the board of trustees for the Worcester Public Library, said that while her board is "very excited" about the master plan, it needs to ensure "convenient, safe and affordable parking." She also said the parking lot on McGrath Boulevard, between the library and the YWCA of Central Massachusetts, needs to be preserved.

The plan would add a parking garage with about 500 spaces behind the theater, adding between 10 and 15 percent capacity to the roughly 3,800 available spaces within seven parking structures in the downtown area between the theater and the DCU Center, four blocks away.

Jo Hart, a resident of Main South, struck a similar theme, although she also advocated for a shuttle service within the district.

But at the same time, she said the plan is not just about parking; the city needs to bring people to the downtown area. "You need to look at the city as a whole. You can't have a vibrant city if you're only thinking about parking."

Craig Blais, president of the Worcester Business Development Corp. (WBDC), acknowledged the need to bring people downtown and said his organization expects an announcement "very, very soon" about the redevelopment of the former T&G property. There has been talk of Quinsigamond Community College opening a location at the Franklin Street building.

"We hope to be the bridge, the catalyst, to future private investment" in the area, said Blais, whose organization is sponsoring the master plan.

The plan must go before the City Council for approval before officials begin to approach private developers. Building a district such as this, Blais noted, typically takes about 10 years.

"We're going to welcome … public discussion on every aspect of the development plan," Blais told the crowd.

Read more

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Open Dialogue, Input Vital To Worcester's Future

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