By Alison Goebel, GOPC Executive Director
Earlier this month, I had the honor of joining the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s board and senior staff on a day trip to Worcester. LILP has been a long-time partner of GOPC’s and most recently published Regenerating America’s Smaller Legacy Cities, a policy focus report written by Torey Hollingsworth and myself.
Our quantitative analysis of the 24 cities in our report, plus interviews with practitioners in these cities and researchers in the field placed Worcester as one of the high-performing smaller legacy cities in our study cohort. Being on the ground in Worcester confirmed this classification.
Over the last 20 years, Worcester has very deliberately and strategically rebuilt its downtown and nearby commercial/mixed-use districts. These areas had minimal 1st floor vacancy, with storefronts filled with restaurants, retail, ethnic grocery stores, and a few national chains, like 7-11. Former textile mills are being converted into loft apartments that fetch $1,200/month for 1 bedrooms and older housing stock looked decent, with hardly a boarded up house in sight. Worcester has a commuter train that carries 1,300 residents to jobs in Boston on a daily basis.
Worcester leaders credit the removal of a dying downtown mall with the downtown’s renaissance. With the space cleared, roadways reconnected, utilities underground and pad-ready sites prepared for new buildings, the downtown has a mix of new buildings and greenspace waiting for new tenants. Additionally, Worcester has repositioned acres of brownfields in surrounding neighborhoods, including locating a new indoor ice skating facility on one site.
Worcester leaders boasted that the CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association recently said that the two hottest food scenes in Massachusetts are the Seaport neighborhood in Boston and Worcester. So many restaurateurs—especially young ones—are moving to Worcester because the rents are much more affordable.
Worcester exemplifies many of strategies discussed in the Revitalizing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities report—foster a shared public- and private-sector vision for the city; focus on quality of place; rebuild downtown; undertake community and strategic planning; leverage state policies. While leaders admit that Worcester continues to struggle with the tension of rebuilding downtown while supporting residential neighborhoods (and low income residents), being cognizant that this needs to be a priority moving forward is an important step in the right direction.
It was a great opportunity to visit Worcester and learn about the city first hand.