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Changes In Worcester

Worcester Is Hip? Really?

Worcester City hall
Worcester City Hall with its refurbished plaza.
Aaron Schachter/WGBH News
Changes In Worcester

Thumbs up has been given by all the relevant baseball authorities, and the Worcester City Council has okayed borrowing more than $100 million to build a stadium for the Red Sox Triple-A baseball team. The team announced just over a month ago that they’ll move to Worcester.

Nabbing the team from Pawtucket is just the latest feat for the region’s second-largest city, which is experiencing an economic and cultural resurgence that many there could only dream about.

For decades, Worcester has carried the stigma of an industrial city in decline.

"There were certain things that were so symbolic, so demonstrable of a previous era that was no more, and it had sunk into the psychology of the city that it wasn't going to come back, that this was just our fate," said Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus. "Probably the worst thing in the world is when people start to believe it, and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And we’ve come to understand that there was no one thing, there were a bunch of individual that set the table for the energy that we’re seeing now."

A good example, Augustus said, was the vacant, crumbling Galleria Mall, a 1970's era planning debacle that ended up nearly destroying the city's downtown. By the time Augustus went to college, the mall was struggling and downtown shopping was in steep decline. Nearby Union Station, once a glorious sign of Worcester's industrial past, had a gaping hole in the roof and served as a visible symbol of the city's decline.

Things began to really change in 2010. And getting rid of the infernal mall was one catalyst.

"I think that we as a city and we as a nation are starting to get smarter about urban planning," said Kate McEvoy, vice president for central and Western Massachusetts for Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and a fifth-generation Worcesterite. "And we're seeing mixed-use development, because it's not any one magic bullet that's going to do it, it's having the residential folks there along with grocery stores and culture and arts."

In addition to taking down the mall, the city also invested in Worcester common, directly in front of city hall. Officials cleaned up the park and created an outdoor seating area that is converted each winter into a skating rink. But they didn't stop there. The city has embarked on a 20-year, $90 million revitalization plan for all of downtown that includes 118 parcels for retail stores, restaurants, entertainment and arts facilities, hotels and lots of housing.

McEvoy said after years of dreaming about change, longtime residents and city officials are finally making things happen.

"We grew up here and we've wanted this our whole lives. When people said no it can't be done, we've said absolutely it can be done. We've lived for a long time with an inferiority complex and a chip on our shoulder... we just didn't know how good we were."

Now, McEvoy said, people are flocking into town. Many of them people who couldn't ever have dreamed of living or working in Worcester.

Michelle Costello is regional manager for Craft Restaurant Concepts, which runs the Brew on the Grid coffee shop as well as several other restaurants in town. She grew up in Pepperell, a little bit north of the city.

Birchtree Bread Company
Birchtree Bread Company in Worcester's Kelly Square sits about a mile from where a new Red Sox Triple-A stadium is being built.
Aaron Schachter/WGBH News

"Worcester wasn't any place I'd ever come," Costello said. "It made me nervous, it made me scared; had a bad reputation of drugs and crime. My mother used to tell me all the time, 'Stay away from Worcester, it's not a nice place to be'."

As a teen, she said, of course she didn't listen to her mom, and did exactly the opposite of what she was told. But, she said, it actually was a really scary place, especially across the street from city hall and the Worcester Common, where the coffee shop is located.

"The whole transformation of this block and this area has been ... it's just amazing and it's such a beautiful city. Just the vibe in Worcester is very cool, very hip. That's Worcester right now, it's very very hip."

One of the hippest spots right now is the Birchtree Bread Company, an abandoned mill building turned restaurant and cafe. It's one of many new eateries in Worcester's Canal District, billed as the "city's most actively developing area." The canals were covered in the late 1880's, but the name stuck. Next to Birchtree, developers are building several dozen luxury apartments.

Charlie Mull, 34, is from Manchester, Vermont, a picturesque small town in the southern part of the state. Worcester, he said, was never high on his list of places to live.

"Initially I didn't think I liked the feel of the city," Mull said, "but I think once I stopped doing things just in my car and started walking around and finding, like the Canal District and realizing there were some of the best restaurants I'd ever been to right here ... I think food started to change my perspective. And beer."

Worcester November Project
Members of the Worcester branch of the November Project run the steps at the College of the Holy Cross.
Aaron Schachter/WGBH News

Just a few minutes away is Shrewsbury Street, an area of the city often referred to as "restaurant row," and where the current restaurant boom began. Real estate developer Rob Branca sits in Simjang a Korean-American restaurant that opened earlier this year. It's run by celebrity chef Jared Forman, who also runs a farm-to-table place on the other side of downtown called Deadhorse Hill. Branca owns the building, which also houses a Neopolitan pizza restaurant and the acclaimed Wormtown Brewery.

Branca is also excited about the types of businesses that have moved in: biomed and biotech companies and specialized manufacturing. There’s also a regional airport, as well as nine colleges and universities.

"We're still in the first 30 percent [of Worcester's growth]. There's a lot of untapped potential here. There are a lot of beautiful, historic buildings that are being saved and re-purposed," Branca said. "You can see the energy that people have here. It's a great place to live, a great place to do business ... it's very easy to do business here."

Branca said that's because everyone basically knows each other. As he pointed out, Worcester is often called the region's biggest small town.

But there is a downside to the boom, at least potentially.

"Worcester does have more affordable housing than our surrounding communities. But if you look at the need in Worcester, there is a gap between that need for affordable housing and what we have," according to Danielle Lariviere, with the Central Mass Housing Alliance.

Lariviere said the city is at a critical tipping point and that the city's rising tide hasn't raised all boats. She pointed out that in the entire course of its history, Worcester has always been a city of immigrants and the working class. And most of them don't frequent farm-to-table restaurants. She worries that it won't be long before lower income people won't have any foothold in the city and won't have anywhere else to go.

"We have to remember that we're pricing our elders out, we're pricing our young families out. In order to have a really vital city, we don't want to end up with some of the crisis we're seeing in the Boston area, so we have to be very conscious of that," Lariviere said. "And it isn't just Worcester experiencing the housing boom, it's the entire region. So it has to be a regional approach."

It is, of course, the very cost of Boston real estate that is in part fueling Worcester's resurgence. Young professionals and emtpy-nesters can experience city living at a fraction of the cost of living in Boston; homes and rents can be half the price of Boston and its immediate suburbs.

Lariviere said city leaders recognize what's happened in Boston, and so far are moving forward warily, with an eye toward ensuring that some of Worcester's outer neighborhoods remain affordable for many years. But, she said, for the people she serves things could go either way.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect decisions by the Worcester City Council as well as Major and Minor League Baseball authorities.

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