April 1, 2013

New Life In An Old Setting: Worcester's Canal District Embarks On A New Era

PHOTO/Jacquelyn Gutc
A thriving Jewish neighborhood until the 1970s, Water Street, part of Worcester's Canal District, is now a major entertainment area of the city, home to restaurants, bars and clubs that are particularly lively on weekends. However, some signs of the area's past remain, such as the Water Street staple Weintraub's Jewish Deli, down the street from the long-standing Broadway Catering.
Amy Chase, owner of the Crompton Collective, is credited with expanding interest and traffic in Crompton Place, a mixed-use development in the Canal District.

The Canal District Through The Years

1824-1828: The Blackstone Canal is dug to connect Worcester and the Blackstone Valley towns to Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. It helps convert the city from an agricultural town of 3,000 into a hub of the United States' industrial revolution.

1890s: In use for 20 years, the canal is an open waterway for nearly 50 years, but increasingly used as a sewer. In the 1890s, it's declared a public health hazard and paved over by Harding Street (see photo above).

1920s: Once predominantly Irish Catholic, the area becomes a predominantly Jewish enclave with bakeries, kosher butchers and delicatessens.

1970s: The construction of Interstate 290 through the Water Street neighborhood eliminates homes that supported area businesses. That, along with the city's overall economic decline during the decade, sees factories close and residents move to the suburbs. Water Street's identity as a Jewish neighborhood fades as shops begin to close and descendants of the first Jewish immigrants move to the west side.

2003: The city commissions a feasibility study on reopening the canal. A group of community and business leaders meets to discuss the study and other possible improvements for the area. The study finds that reopening the waterway is possible and economically viable, but would cost tens of millions of dollars. The group of local stakeholders forms the Canal District Alliance. About six years later, the Canal District Business Association is formed to find ways to promote the area and grow business.

Today: The area now known as the Canal District is becoming an entertainment hub with new shops, restaurants, bars and clubs.

Sources: Worcester Historical Museum, Canal District Alliance

As Worcester works to revitalize its neighborhoods, the city's Canal District is one area many point to as an up-and-coming place.

There's a list of upgrades community leaders still want to see, but public-private partnerships over the last decade have led to improvements in building fašades, streets and sidewalks, as well as renewed entrepreneurial interest.

"It's an area that has absolutely been changing," said Timothy McGourthy, Worcester's economic development director. "It has some great historic bones; it's a very walkable area; it's a very concentrated area."

Named for the Blackstone Canal, which was built in the late 1820s and linked the city to Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay, the area helped Worcester industrialize. The canal was covered over in the 1890s, but community leaders hope to reopen it to help drive tourism and business.

The district has undergone many transformations from the time Irish immigrants flocked to the area and helped build the waterway, to its becoming home to mostly Eastern European immigrants by the 1920s, according to the Worcester Historical Museum. Eventually, Water Street, in particular, was identified as a Jewish neighborhood, but it declined when its bakeries, kosher butchers and delicatessens began to close in the 1970s.

The current wave of revitalization began about 10 years ago when community leaders started discussing a city-commissioned feasibility study on reopening the canal.

John Giangregorio leads what became the Canal District Alliance and about four years ago, helped organize the Canal District Business Association.

"We specifically started to look at ways in which we could help or promote the area and have a direct impact on the local businesses," Giangregario said.

The organization met with city officials and secured $7.6 million in federal stimulus funding in 2010 to improve the streetscapes on Millbury, Water and Green streets, and part of Harding Street. Giangregorio said another $750,000 has been earmarked for additional upgrades on Harding.

"I think the streetscape went through quite a change," said Dino Lorusso, who owns the mixed-use development Crompton Place. "It really softened the neighborhood and I think it will probably help move the neighborhood (forward) much quicker."

Meanwhile, the city has helped fund 13 fašade improvements in the district over the last decade, McGourthy said. The money — typically up to 75 percent of a project's costs — comes with the requirement that businesses will create jobs in the area.

McGourthy noted that these are not bottom-line improvements, like new equipment, but are "important to try to draw in the customer base."

More Vibrant Nightlife

The area, mostly Water and Green streets, comes alive with bar and restaurant patrons on Thursday, Friday or Saturday nights. It's an image community leaders embrace, organizing events like the Mardi Gras festival Carnaval de Canal, which features food, drinks and entertainment.

But Giangregorio said they're eager to see the area become a 24/7 destination by adding more housing and retail.

And that's something Lorusso is helping make happen. In the past decade, he purchased two historic buildings that essentially take up a triangular block between Harding, Harrison and Green streets.

He plans to create a mixed-use development that would keep people in the neighborhood after business hours. The businesses inside his buildings — one of which is the former Crompton Loom Works — include Ziti's Restaurant, the Salsa Storm Studio and Salon Nina Raffaella.

Shortly after he purchased the nearly 50,000-square-foot Crompton structure, the recession hit and Lorusso decided to put his plans for housing on the upper two floors on hold, but forged ahead with retail.

His first tenant was Leah Long, who opened Alexis Grace Consignment.

"I found the space on Craigslist and I just fell in love with it because it's kind of off the beaten path, but it's a beautiful building," Long said.

Long will celebrate her fourth anniversary there in May. She said the first couple of years were tough because she's in a tucked-away location on Harrison Street. But word of mouth helped grow her business, as did tenants who joined Crompton Place, helping build momentum for the area by serving a similar niche market dedicated to resale, antiques and handmade items.

The Architectural Garage and Blackstone Vignettes followed, and in September came Crompton Collective, an artisan and antique mall.

Amy Chase of the collective is credited with expanding interest and traffic in Crompton Place.

"She really knows how to market and promote," Lorusso said

Chase promotes heavily through social media and by hosting events, ranging from pet photo days to classes about business finance. Shortly after her arrival, she even helped Long redo her shop's Facebook page to make it more "business like."

Chase said most of the people coming to Crompton are from outside Worcester, even from Boston.

"It's a nice niche," Lorusso said. "The competition isn't at the mall; it isn't at the plaza. We've got a unique retail area."

Near Kelley Square, on Madison Street, is another property that may change the district: the 14-acre Wyman-Gordon site that's being targeted for a slots parlor. Giangregario said if that plan progresses, the public should be allowed to engage in the process to ensure maximum benefits for local businesses.

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Not An Island

Although the area has its own image, city leaders stress that it's part of the bigger picture for Worcester.

"We've always viewed the Canal District as one of the downtown residential neighborhoods," McGourthy said. "I would love to get to the point where people feel comfortable parking either in the Canal District or downtown and feel comfortable walking to one or the other."

City Councilor Philip Palmieri, whose district includes part of the area, said the reopening of Front Street as part of downtown's CitySquare project is instrumental in linking the areas, with the Canal District eventually seeing spinoff from downtown developments and people coming from Boston by train. (Disclosure: The Worcester Business Journal rents office space from Palmieri.)

"Places like the canal zone and Shrewsbury Street were generally islands because you couldn't get to downtown," he said. "Now that we've opened it up, there is a pedestrian-friendly way which you can get to the downtown and to (the) East Side and the canal zone."

Yet while there's a lot of optimism, the area is not without its challenges.

Two parcels totaling 1.3 acres where auto parts shop Bumper to Bumper once stood are now empty lots facing Harding and Green that fill out the property between the three streets where Lorusso's buildings are. It's a prominent location in Kelley Square that officials want to see developed. McGourthy said the city has been working with the property owner who is seeking a buyer and called the property a "critical element."

"We want something that will help people connect into Kelley Square and ultimately across Kelley Square," he said.

Giangregorio said the area on the other side of the square, most notably Millbury Street, was traditionally the city's entertainment hub. Now, he said, there are about 20 empty storefronts, partially due to changes in Interstate 290 exits that altered traffic flow in the area.

"Like every business district, there are holes," Palmieri said. "They still have ways to go, but they are very proactive, probably one of the more creative business groups around ... and I think that's extraordinarily important, and I think in the end, they'll be enormously successful."

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