October 2, 2017

Former WRTA site development needs to clear a higher bar

Worcester's city government doesn't want more of the same when it comes to the redevelopment of the former Worcester Regional Transit Authority facility sandwiched between Grove Street and Park Avenue, and that's a good thing.

When Galaxy Development of Auburn proposed a 65,000-square-foot complex called the Trolley Yard at the property, city officials asked the company to hit the pause button and rethink its design approach.

Galaxy's plan put before the Worcester Planning Board on Sept. 13 was to put in 13 retail spaces and 20,000 square feet of office space, with large buildings facing inward toward a parking lot, in a design similar to a suburban strip mall, oriented towards drive-in, drive-out traffic. Instead, City Manager Edward Augustus asked Galaxy to go back to the drawing board to design a better fit, reflecting its urban setting and the city's desire to promote a denser, more walkable environment.

Worcester's 30-year-old master plan is clearly outdated and does not spell out a set of guidelines for developments like this one, so it is encouraging to see Augustus articulating the desire for a more pedestrian-facing, denser approach. Urging developers like Galaxy to think outside of the typical suburban-style retail-complex template and more like an urban developer is refreshing.

Worcester is seeking to revitalize its downtown core and outlying neighborhoods, and the best way to do that has been to attract private investors to make it happen. The kind of development prevalent along sections of Route 9 to the east of Worcester, full of strip malls and big-box anchors stores, is seen as undesirable in a tighter, urban setting. Large commercial strips where customers drive from one complex to the next almost guarantees there is no room to accommodate walkers, bikers and others on foot. Just to the north of the Trolly Yard site is Gold Star Boulevard, which has a Home Depot, Shaw's, Price Rite, CVS, a series of car dealerships and the Greendale Mall. Yet in the other direction is the historic Northworks property, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the Worcester Art Museum and other elements of a much more urban setting. Connecting the new development to that end of the city holds the promise of extending the walkable, street-friendly feel underway in that district.

Augustus and planning officials may have put more focus on the Galaxy development because the city has a more direct connection – and a stronger stake in its future. As the WRTA was moving off the historic property and into its new $90-million hub on Quinsigamond Avenue, the city had a bidding process for the five-acre site, and Galaxy – under the name Galaxy Grove LLC – was the top bidder at $3.8 million.

Galaxy is set to unveil its new design to the planning board on Wednesday. It has been encouraging to see the city articulate a vision for better urban design, and refreshing to see Galaxy on board for a major refresh in its site design. A decade ago, the city would not have dared mess with the few developers willing to put invest their money in new commercial property. Done right, the push for better, more site-sensitive design will turn out to be a win-win for the city and the developer.


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