April 30, 2018

Report: Boston rail ties could lead to major development near Union Station

Photo | Grant Welker
Union Station, as viewed from the Mercantile Center.
Photo | File
Union Station in Worcester

Worcester could see millions of square feet of new development if it takes better advantage of Union Station's ties by commuter rail to Boston, according to a new report by think tank MassINC.

The area within roughly a 10-minute walk to the station could see a surge in development in the coming years, including a tenfold growth in the number of residents within an easy walk of the station.

In total, the development could add to nearly 10 million square feet in what MassINC calls optimal buildout.

That's equal to 37 Mercantile Center towers.

"There's a lot of good news in this for Worcester," said Ben Forman, MassINC's research director.

Compared to three other cities that MassINC studied — Fitchburg, Lynn and Springfield — Worcester development would need virtually no subsidies in order to make projects economically viable, MassINC determined by looking at building costs and rent prices.

MassINC studied development potential in a half-mile radius from Union Station, an area that covers much of downtown, the Canal District and the Shrewsbury Street corridor.

Underutilized area around Worcester's Union Station or train hubs in places like Fitchburg, Lynn and Springfield are ripe for denser transit-oriented development, MassINC said.

"Currently, Gateway City commuter rail stations get minimal ridership from downtown neighborhoods and few developers seek out this land for (transit-oriented development)," the group said. "But changing economic forces may provide market-building opportunities that we should not overlook," it added, saying such development would add economic growth, reduce road congestion and conserve suburban or rural areas that might otherwise be cleared for new development.

The center of Worcester would be transformed under the type of growth MassINC says could be on the horizon.

Today, the half-mile radius around Union Station has 2,511 residents, according to the group. At optimal buildout, that could be 26,000.

"That was the most astounding thing for us was the relative low number of people who live in that area compared to other gateway cities," Forman said.

Downtown Worcester and surrounding neighborhoods today are much more dominated by office space. There are nearly 20,000 workers within a half-mile of Union Station, MassINC said. Ideally, Forman said, that would increase less sharply than residential growth, meeting an ideal one-to-one ratio of residents to workers that can sustain restaurants and other spaces on nights and weekends.

In Fitchburg, MassINC said optimal buildout would mean about 13,000 residents and the same number of workers around the city's commuter rail station. Today, that area has only 6,600 residents and 4,100 jobs.

MassINC determined the amount of growth around train stations like Union Station by calculating active uses in vacant areas, such as upper-floor spaces in buildings only be occupied today on their ground floor.

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