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In order to build a mixed-use, 508-bed student housing complex by 2026, Clark University in Worcester plans to demolish and rebuild an entire block of Main Street in the Main South neighborhood in 2024, including three historic structures and a number of businesses.
“When I have to move to another place, it will be more expensive, and I have to build up a customer base all over again,” said Laura Siguenza, owner of Laura’s Express convenience store, which is one of the businesses set to be displaced.
Among the other businesses occupying space in the block are the restaurant Annie’s Clark Brunch, which has been in operation for more than 35 years, and the new Salvadorian bakery Belen Casa del Pan, which bought the cafe from Acoustic Java in January.
“Clark has been working in good faith with the businesses to make sure they are fairly compensated for having to move,” said Steve Teasdale, executive director of the Main South Community Development Corp. “There are still discussions that are needed between Clark and the community over a project of this scale.”
In the place of the buildings, Clark aims to build a seven-story, 156,000-square-foot residential and retail building, adding 508 beds for students and 10,000 square feet of first-floor retail, according to a filing with the Worcester Historical Commission.
Clark is planning on having sessions with local community members in August and work with the individual business owners to help them continue their operations as the project moves forward, according to a July 19 letter by Clark to university faculty and staff.
"I would like to underscore that we respect our long-standing tenants and their contributions to the community, and we are treating our conversations with them about their plans as confidential," Jill Friedman, Clark vice president, marketing & communications, said in an email Thursday to WBJ.
In the fall semester, Clark officials will work with students on the types of rooms to be included in the housing project. Faculty and staff will be updated on the project in a Sept. 7 session, according to the letter.
"Our highest priority is to engage with our community partners to imagine not only what this important stretch of Main Street will look like, but also how it will contribute to the social, cultural, and economic vitality of Clark and Main South," the July 19 letter says.
Clark is seeking to demolish the historic structures because it is more cost effective to do so than to renovate the century-old buildings and bring them up to standards for student housing, according to the Building Demolition Delay Waiver Application received by the City of Worcester on June 5.
That demolition application is timed so Clark can begin demolition of the block in 2024 and the new facilities can open in fall 2026, according to the letter.
During the 2022-23 academic year, Clark saw a 13% increase in enrollment, which led to a 103% occupancy rate in student housing, leading to the school leasing space from third parties, including Worcester State University, according to the application.
A Clark study indicated the university needs to add 375 new beds to its housing stock. But renovating the existing three historic buildings, along with new construction at the site of the other buildings slated for demolition, would yield 275 beds.
The Trustees of Clark University own the properties that will be demolished. They currently contain student and employee housing and first-floor retail space.
Siguenza, owner of Laura’s Express, said she has been in discussions with Clark officials for a few years that indicated she might have to relocate once plans for the building are finalized. About a month ago, she was then told her business would have to vacate its space by May 2024, she said.
“It is going to be hard again to have to restart the business somewhere else,” she said. Laura’s Express has been at that location for more than 20 years.
Siguenza’s contact at Clark said she may receive a payment of $25,000 to $50,000 to help with her move, but the amount hasn’t been finalized yet.
“That’s nothing compared to what I have to spend to move,” she said.
Laura’s Express pays $700 per month in rent to Clark to occupy the storefront at 934 Main St. When she started looking at other locations in Worcester for her business, rents were more than $2,000 per month, she said.
“It is not just money,” Siguenza said. “It is people’s feelings when they have to move, especially when they have long years here.”
It is unlikely the existing businesses will return to the location once Clark is finished building the new student housing complex, said Teasdale of Main South CDC.
Main South CDC is in discussions with Clark officials to obtain assurances the rents for the businesses occupying the storefronts in the new building will be affordable to businesses in Main South, which is one of Worcester’s lower-income neighborhoods. The CDC doesn’t want those businesses replaced by upscale businesses, which would change the character of the neighborhood, Teasdale said.
“The impact of these plans on the neighborhood will be the next topic of productive discussion with Clark,” said Teasdale, who emphasized Clark has been responsive so far to the concerns of the neighborhood organization.
The historic properties planned for demolition in Clark’s plans are the Albert G. Chavoor Building at 926-928 Main St. (1925), the Charles T. Chavoor Building at 930 Main St. (1925), and the Chavoor Apartment House at 932-934 Main St. (1914).
The historical commission will hear the request in a public meeting on Aug. 10.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated at 5:15 p.m. on Aug. 3 with comments from Clark University officials.