April 17, 2017

Creating a walkable Worcester

With Karamís Homewood Suites opening in May, Worcester officials are working to get more development in Washington Square, particularly the parcel across Summer Street from the hotel.
First Bristol Corp. Vice President Jeff Karam wanted to build the Homewood Suites on Washington Square for its potential to tie into adjacent Worcester neighborhoods.

Shrewsbury Street is a longtime restaurant destination, the Canal District is more popular than ever, and multiple projects are breathing fresh life into downtown. Now, Worcester is looking to Washington Square to tie it all together.

"That area is one of the most desirable in New England from a walkable cities perspective," said Mullen Sawyer, president of the Canal District Allilance in Worcester. "It's really creating a central location from which to go out and connect."

The landmark Union Station in Washington Square brings nearly 1,500 people on an average weekday to the neighborhood for commuter rail or Amtrak trains. With the adjacent Worcester Regional Transit Authority bus hub, the station can help make Worcester more walkable than it has been in decades.

"Union Station was intended to jumpstart or be the lynchpin to redevelop the Washington Square, Shrewsbury Street and downtown area," City Manager Edward Augustus said.

But Washington Square's ability to connect with adjacent neighborhoods has a lot of room for improvement, said Mariela Alfonzo, the founder and CEO of State of Place, a firm that uses several hundred factors and algorithms to score a city's "place quality," or how well it works as walkable, livable space where people want to be.

Pedestrian unfriendly

Alfonzo took a look in particular at the stretch from Union Station to Shrewsbury Street as a pedestrian would encounter it. She found too few pedestrian or bike amenities, poor aesthetics and the Interstate 290 overpass combining to form a significant barrier in getting people from walking from the station to any of the neighborhood's restaurants.

Sidewalks are narrow, with no buffer between pedestrians and car traffic, particularly under the highway and train overpasses, she said. There are long stretches with no real land uses or destinations lining the street.

Alfonzo criticized a lack of places to sit – "although right now, I wouldn't want to sit anywhere along the path," she adds – and too few crosswalks.

Yet there are some assets: Washington Square is nicely landscaped with islands where pedestrians can pause between roadways, and much of the area has attractive lighting, she said.

Closer than you think

Better stitching together neighborhoods could allow pedestrians to walk among destinations closer together than people realize. The DCU Center, Wormtown Brewery and the future Worcester Ice Center are all about a five-minute walk from the front steps of Union Station. The Crompton Collective and City Hall are 10 minutes, and the restaurants British Beer Co. and Armsby Abbey are 15 minutes by foot.

The train station is the only active use right on Washington Square, but that will soon change.

A 118-room Homewood Suites will open in May, a project designed to take advantage of its surroundings and the close walking distance to these Worcester landmarks.

"It's a good amenity for our guests," said Jeff Karam, a vice president for Fall River-based First Bristol Corp., the developer of the Homewood Suites.

First Bristol intentionally built its hotel without a restaurant, in order to encourage guests to get out and about to Shrewsbury Street and other nearby Worcester destinations.

"We're very anxious to be tied into Shrewsbury Street, where our guests can walk down to a number of great restaurants," said James Karam, First Bristol's president and CEO.

Focal point to the city

The city plans to encourage Washington Square improvements by looking at a $1-million, city-owned parcel between the rotary and the elevated train line, Augustus said. The 0.6-acre site could be expanded to about 1 acre – and therefore made more marketable – by eliminating an closed-off access road that once led from Summer Street to Foster Street.

"We're going to start very aggressively marketing that as a development site," Augustus said.

Making Washington Square more walkable and developable has been more than a decade in the making. The rotary itself was shrunk nearly a decade ago in a process that made the intersection more pedestrian-friendly and opened up more than an acre of buildable land. A 2006 study called for a hotel where Homewood Suites is soon to open, and a four-story office building across Summer Street.

New uses on the square would enliven an area that today feels like more of a void between neighborhoods.

The area around Union Station should be transform from a vehicular-dominated zone to one where residents and visitors will want to walk around, said Michael Testa, president of the Grafton Hill Neighborhood Association. He said he doesn't know of anyone who walks to and from the station, which he called a focal point to the city.

"I don't see anyone walking," he said. "Not as much as when I was younger, when everyone was walking."

Inexpensive improvements

Making a neighborhood walkable doesn't have to involve expensive overhauls, said Robert Ping, the Portland, Ore.,-based executive director of the Walkable and Liveable Cities Institute.

It can be as simple as a bucket of paint, Ping said: a road that can be reduced from four lanes to two slows down traffic and makes it safer for those walking. Adding bike lanes, planting trees and bringing new buildings closer to the street all create a more human scale, he said, something that hasn't always been favored by engineers.

"Unfortunately, planning has tended to favor speed and automotive uses over everything else," he said.

For the potential walking paths out of Washington Square, the Canal District Alliance has been leading a proposal to light up and add artwork to what are now several dark train overpasses, like on Green Street or Harding Street.

City officials are talking with the state Department of Transportation to make more inviting the area underneath I-290. The north side of the street under the viaduct will become part of the Homewood Suites parking lot, while the other side is a fenced-in city parking lot deemed in the 2006 report to be too small for development, suggesting instead space potentially for public art.

Washington Square's potential is what helped draw James Karam to develop Homewood Suites at that location.

"I've been attracted to Worcester for a long time," he said.

Karam, a former UMass trustee, said he noticed Worcester's evolution when he'd visit the UMass Medical School.

The city administration is "very focused on where they're going and where they want to be," he said.


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