September 4, 2017
SHOP TALK

Allen Fletcher seeks to repopulate Canal District

Allen Fletcher, Retired businessman & developer Harding Green

VIEW: Allen Fletcher gives history behind Canal District staples.

Allen Fletcher

Company: Harding Green

Title: Developer, retired businessman

Age: 69

Residence: Two blocks from his development, on Ash Street in Worcester's Canal District

Education: Bachelor of liberal arts, Harvard University; stationed in west Africa, U.S. Peace Corps; master of architecture, University of California at Berkeley

Six years after its building was demolished and turned into a dirt lot largely used for parking at Crompton Place, retired businessman and Canal District advocate Allen Fletcher is finally ready to break ground on his long-envisioned development for the property he bought for $900,000 in 2014. Construction crews on Sept. 11 will start building his $21-million, 70,000-square-foot Harding Green project.

Why start this project now?

I wanted to do what was best for the district. We have been laboring away in the Canal District for years, and everybody thinks we are a success story. We are, to a certain extent, but some of it is smoke and mirrors.

We primarily have been a success as a bar scene. Then restaurants came in after that, which is pretty cool. Finally, thanks to Dino Lorusso creating Crompton Place, we are getting a retail cluster – destination retail.

What is smoke & mirrors?

The thing about the district, though, is almost nobody lives here. It is a jumble of old industrial buildings and some old residential buildings lying fallow for a long time. Miraculously, almost nothing has been torn down, so it still has the bones of a good district.

When did you first plan this project?

About five years ago. The old building was demolished in 2011, and then the lot sat around for a couple of years. Then I decided it would be a good idea to control the use of it. It took me a long time to buy it because of stupid delays of all sorts.

I seriously started to do plans two years ago. I have an architect friend who is skilled at development and has done a lot of marketplace development. We designed something and had it estimated for cost, and it was far above what I thought I could handle – I'm not a developer; I didn't know how to deal with it.

How did it move forward?

I started showing it to developer friends, but I didn't get closer to reality until I fell in with Ray Quinlan, who is a really good developer – he developed most of the buildings in the biotech park. He thought he was retired, but then he got excited about this project.

Now, the contractor is about to start. Believe me, it is a rocky road.

How does it honor Canal District legacy?

Turn of the 20th Century and into the 1950s, Water Street was the scene of the Eastern European immigration to Worcester, almost entirely Jewish. It was a thriving mixed-use European district with bakeries and delis on the first floor, businesses on the second floor and residences on the upper floors. That, to me, was the heyday of the district.

Two primary things happened: I-290 came in and cut off the district to its clientele in the Grafton Hill area, and the Jewish population prospered and moved over to the west side. Then, the general trend of suburbanization moved a lot of people out.

How will the project revive it?

We've got something going here, and it is essentially an entertainment district. We need people living here, as many as we can get. I wanted to create residences along with some destination retail to create something alive and vibrant right in Kelley Square, re-enforcing the good things happening in Crompton Place.

What are the staples of Harding Green?

The project consists of a public marketplace on the first floor, which is a vendor-driven, food-oriented marketplace, similar to the Boston Public Market.

It will be a changing-every-day environment. It won't be a farmers market, although it will have produce in season. It will be more prepared foods: a seafood place, a butcher shop, a cheese shop, probably a brewery. Floors two, three and four will be 48 market-rate apartments.

Do you have business tenants yet?

Not yet. We are just starting. We've hired a person to run the market, and we are just about to start lining up tenants in earnest.

What is the Canal District's future?

I envision a thriving, medium-density, mixed-use district. It will be a district to be the embodiment of a great place to live – a place Worcester hasn't had since this district went in decline 50 years ago.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by Brad Kane, WBJ editor.

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