November 12, 2018
Focus on innovative workspaces

Worcester wants to pick right mix of tenants for Union Station

PHOTO/MATT WRIGHT
Worcester Chief Development Officer Michael Traynor stands in the grand hall of Union Station, which is occasionally used for events.

When Michael Traynor walked around Union Station on Nov. 1 to discuss the city's development plans for the transit hub, just a handful of passengers were waiting to catch a train or bus out of New England's second-largest city.

Traynor, as Worcester's chief development officer, is the person most directly responsible for executing the city's vision for the largely vacant building the city has sunk $37 million into: fill it with commercial and retail tenants who will not only attract more foot traffic but strategically use its Washington Square location to tie in the downtown, Canal District and Shrewsbury Street neighborhoods.

Despite the prime location, the city has had trouble leasing about 8,000-square-feet of unused commercial space since the 500-spot garage was built in 2008.

"The city has tried a number of times to do at least one, if not two [requests for proposals], but we never got any takers," said Traynor.

Yet, with a flurry of private investment in the surrounding area with a new hotel, apartments and eventually the Pawtucket Red Sox, businesses and state agencies are beginning to take notice of Union Station in the first major way since the Worcester Redevelopment Authority spearheaded a $32-million renovation of the station to reopen it to the public and Commuter Rail traffic in 2000.

With the 103,000-square-foot building in an urban renewal area, the property was transferred from the city to the quasi-private WRA to make lease negotiations more direct and streamlined. Since that transfer in 2014, the city has spent north of $3.7 million on improvements to the building, including security cameras, signage, restroom reconstruction, a taxi queue, repainting and exterior stucco repairs.

Another $1.1 million in renovations are planned for this winter.

An anchor tenant

Up until this year, engineering firm VHB and the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission were leasing about 15,000-square-feet of office space on the second floor. Both of those entities have left, leaving the door open for the regulators of the state's newest industry to take their place.

The state Cannabis Control Commission is negotiating with the city on a lease of the space and has even given the city its conditional acceptance of a proposal to move the agency to the middle of the state. Union Station was one of 10 other locations the CCC was considering, and officials think it provides a unique opportunity to attract entrepreneurs to the spaces in and around the building.

"We've long wanted to get some state offices in the city," Traynor said. The CCC "is a good anchor tenant."

With more than 1,000 pending business licenses before the state's marijuana industry regulating agency, Union Station is primed to expose more Massachusetts businesspeople to the city.

Finding the right tenants

What the right kind of tenants are for the rest of Union Station's vacant spaces is under discussion. WRA is awaiting a report from Worcester real estate firm Kelleher & Sadowsky on the best kind of uses, but Traynor seems focused on a sit-down restaurant use to drive foot traffic to the building and downtown area.

Board members at a WRA meeting in October held off on any new leases until Kelleher's report is furnished.

However, according to a 2017 report from the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, respondents to a survey indicated a desire for a Chipotle-type restaurant, bookstore or coffee shop.

"These recommendations would attract the college demographic, as well as the young working adult demographic, creating more foot traffic in the area and hopefully a more vibrant area," the 2017 report said.

There was demand for a small food market, like a Trader Joe's, in one of the spaces facing Franklin Street.

Union Station already has a small coffee shop and convenience store in the terminal, but the chamber's report indicated a strong desire for another coffee shop able to meet commuter demands.

The chamber singles out Luciano's Restaurant, which is operated by Maxwell Silverman's Banquet and Conference Center. Maxwell Silverman's hosts about one or two events per weekend in the building's massive Grand Hall, while Luciano's is only open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. That's not good value, the chamber said.

"Kiosks such as the ones that can be found in South Station could be a potential way to most effectively utilize the space and create a desired economic impact," the report said.

Breweries & restaurants

One of the city's newest breweries – Greater Good Imperial Brewing Company – is among the parties interested in vacant space on the ground floor of the garage along Franklin Street.

The space was even among the first the brewery ever considered when it looked into moving to Worcester from Williamsburg in 2017. Eventually, Greater Good settled on its current Millbrook Street facility, but the company has sent a letter to the city with plans to find a permanent home for a line of lighter beers called Soul Purpose.

Also expressing interest in the space is The Quarters, a Hadley-based bar and arcade, and the former owner of the County Music Ranch & Saloon, formerly located on James Street.

The Quarters would open in space along Franklin Street. That business was already interested in the space before the Pawtucket Red Sox said they were coming to town and before the city said it would commit funds to help businesses with the build out of the space.

The country music restaurant and bar would look to open in the space formerly occupied by Lava Lounge, which was evicted from its home in the Grand Hall last year. The club's lease was terminated for not operating more than just a few days a week. Further, the establishment didn't operate as a full-service restaurant.

WRA never wanted that kind of use, members said at a June 2017 meeting.

"It doesn't fit with what we're trying to do with Union Station," WRA Member Jennifer Gaskin said last year.

Neither The Quarters, Maxwell Silverman's or Country Music Ranch & Saloon provided comment for this story.

South Station West

Comparing Union Station to South Station, the eastern terminus of the Commuter Rail, wouldn't make a whole lot of sense given the population difference between Boston and Worcester.

According to the Worcester chamber's report, the city's daytime population in 2014 was about 209,000 compared to Boston's 1.2 million.

According to Amtrak ridership data, ridership in South Station in 2017 was more than 1.5 million. Union Station's was 6,665.

Despite the difference, the chamber did compare the two several times, and even listed the 23 retail and restaurant entities in the state's busiest train and bus terminal.

They include sit-down restaurant and bars, fast-service restaurants and convenience stores like CVS. In Worcester, a convenience store was interested in a Franklin Street space, but that never materialized, Traynor said.

Retail shouldn't be the lead use for the building, Traynor said, adding a platform expansion project at Union Station expected to increase trips to and from Worcester and increase foot traffic in the area could eventually support retail use in the building.

"I don't think we have the numbers right now," he said.

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