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The City Where We Live

by John B. Anderson ‘57
The City Where We Live

In 1973, just after Worcester celebrated its 250th anniversary of incorporation as a town, a College publication, The Holy Cross Quarterly, joined the event, devoting an issue of the magazine to a study of Worcester and its future.

Wes Christensen, then the College’s director of public affairs and a contributor to the issue, surveyed the city’s plans for the revitalization of its downtown, which included the construction of an enclosed shopping center and an adjacent office complex.

Opened in 1971, the whole project—not very imaginatively named Worcester Center—included a shopping mall called the Galleria, echoing the Milanese facility which was its model. The new enclosed mall was intended to staunch the flow of retail blood to suburban malls by offering an equal or better choice of stores and merchandise in the heart of the city. In an area cleared—“redeveloped,” in the phrase of the day—of older buildings, the new center, with its “world’s largest parking garage,” would revitalize downtown.

Thirty-five years later the wrecking ball is poised over Worcester Center.

At the start, there were the highest of hopes for the Center. And they originated with, and were primarily articulated by, Holy Cross alumni. Edward Maher ’40, chairman of the Worcester Redevelopment Authority, and Francis McGrath ’30, Worcester’s city manager, both saw Worcester Center as the major element in a revived downtown. In an editorial, The Evening Gazette called it “one of the most spectacular commercial complexes in the country.” An accompanying cartoon showed a young couple, presumably “Mr. and Mrs. Worcester,” emerging from a dark, shadowy woods into a bright, open meadow, their days in the wilderness over.

Joel Wilder, one of the principals in the project, predicted a boost to all of the downtown area: older buildings getting face lifts, new ones being built and a dynamic downtown commercial life for Worcester once again. Worcester Center’s Galleria opened with 75 stores including a raft of well-known names: Jordan Marsh—its first Worcester store; Filene’s, which moved from Main Street; and national chains like Peck & Peck, all brought glamour to the new mall. The garage, however, charged for parking, and soon the complaints rose: Why pay to park when you can go to another (suburban) mall and shop at the same stores for no cost?

Worcester Center and other efforts at downtown renewal were the local response to recommendations made in a report produced by Doxiades Associates. The third in a series of major studies of what to do in downtown Worcester, the document recommended that the city seek to become a “strong regional center.”

Wilder’s prediction was realized as two local banks built headquarters on Main Street sharing the new skyline with the Center—which had its own two bank office towers in addition to its retail space. Here and there, new facades appeared. And for a short time, it truly seemed as if Worcester might well become a model for rustbelt resurrection.

But then the activity petered out. And too quickly, clouds darkened Mr. and Mrs. Worcester’s once sunny meadow.

The Galleria’s life was short. As early as 1979, one of the major stores, Jordan Marsh, cut back its hours of operation. By 1991, many of the original stores had left or reduced their size. That year, some of the smaller stores reported sales drops of 50 percent in the most recent two-year period.

The Common Outlets and the Promise of City Square
The original developers sold the center in 1989. Its new owners, New England Development—in an effort to save the Center and their investment—reshaped the Galleria into an outlet mall, competing now against places like Kittery, Maine, with its strip of outlets for the fashion-conscious bargain hunter.

Now called “Worcester Common Outlets,” a name designed to suggest its location just off the Common in downtown Worcester—but sometimes read as an adjective denoting its quality—the new Center featured Filene’s Basement and the outlet operations of Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Opened in the fall of 1994, it was, in the words of its new developers, a “destination mall.” Cars and busses full of shoppers from all over New England would bring hundreds of eager and inspired shoppers each day. And they and you could park for three hours for only 99 cents!

Within a year, however, new competition appeared in Wrentham—a Premium Discount Mall, just off Interstate 495. And history appeared to repeat itself with maddening rapidity. The bright promise of the Worcester Common Outlets faded fast. In 1999, the Boston Business Journal reported that the outlet mall was “struggling.”

It was not a long struggle. By 2005 the Common Outlets were virtually empty. Once again a new owner with a new vision—and promises of help from the city—stepped in. Berkeley Investments and its principal, Young K. Park, proposed demolition of the old Center and its replacement by a whole new project. Out of the rubble would rise a new effort at downtown revitalization: City Square.

City Square would reopen an east-west axis in downtown Worcester that had been lost with the construction of Worcester Center, tying Main Street to the newly rehabilitated Union Station and the increasingly active life of Shrewsbury Street with its mixture of lively restaurants and clubs. Retail would be a small part of City Square, which, in addition to office space, would include housing designed to attract the growing number of rail commuters.

The City Where We Live, continued>>>

Read more:
Filling the Void

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