Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Pitch at Wyman-Gordon Field

20,000 Seat Toyota Park (Home of the Chicago Fire) Superimposed on the Wyman-Gordon Site

Wyman-Gordon Field in Relation to the Proposed Junction District Stop on the AIRLINE and Kelley Square/Canal District
 The Wyman-Gordon parcel downtown has been for sale for some time now. It's a large parcel (or several parcels really) that total something like a dozen acres or so. Reportedly W-G wants to retain a few acres for some of their operations and is asking $1MM per acre for the balance.

Meanwhile, it's known that the Kraft's, owners of the New England Revolution, a soccer club member of Major League Soccer (MLS), are looking to build a soccer specific stadium to house their team. Apparently they would like an urban location (check) with good access to public transportation (check - new Junction District stop is 1st stop on line from Union Station - a mere 45 min. express train ride from Boston). So far they have been focusing on an area known as Brickbottom in Somerville, and I certainly don't blame them for focusing their efforts on the Boston area. But I think there are some merits to considering the W-G site in Worcester:
  1. The current home of the Revolution is already outside of Boston - Moving from Foxboro to Worcester would likely be seen as a lateral move by Boston area residents - instead of driving/taking the T to Foxboro, they just drive or take the T to Worcester. South shore residents would have to trek further but Western MA, Hartford, CT area and VT and NH residents would all be closer. This would be much more challenging if the Revolution were already in Boston and we wanted to move them out of the city.
  2. 6 MM people in a 50 mi. radius - Soccer plays something like 16 home games plus playoffs a year. With relatively few games, the idea of taking an hour or two ride to get to the game is not so imposing as for baseball, hockey or basketball where there are a lot more games and thus you need a large local population to draw from. This is the New England Revolution after all, why not put them in the center of New England?
  3. A stadium of 20-25,000 seats could be supported in Worcester - If we were talking 60,000 seats it would not work, it's simply too big for Worcester. But a stadium in the low 20's seems like something Worcester could support. Other uses for the stadium include a new home field for Holy Cross football, summer concerts (Worcester has a strong concert scene and an outdoor venue like this does not exist in Central MA as far as I know. It seems to me that being able to offer this outdoor venue together with the DCU Center would be a great competitive advantage when looking to bring bigger acts to Worcester) and special events (graduations, World Cup soccer qualifying matches, international soccer exhibitions, and special events such as college lacrosse, field hockey and football games - maybe even a New Years Day outdoor hockey game featuring Holy Cross and a local rival?)
  4. A multicultural sport for a multicultural city - Worcester is a diverse city and must remain so if it is going to continue to grow in the years to come. What better way to promote diversity then by hosting an MLS team?
  5. MA Youth Soccer's fields are located in Lancaster, MA - MLS heavily promotes and support youth soccer in states/cities with teams and a number of teams have recently built youth facilities as part of their new facilities. Here in MA, MA Youth Soccer opened a world class facility in Lancaster, MA in 2007. The facility, with 11 natural grass and 5 synthetic turf fields on 130 acres is just 22 miles (less than a 30 minute drive along 190) as compared to 35 miles (approximately 1 hour assuming no traffic) to Somerville. If the Revolution want to build their relationship with MA Youth Soccer, they would do better choosing a Worcester location.
  6. Opportunities for spin off development - Like Patriot Place in Foxboro, there could easily be opportunities to develop retail opportunities in the vacant land connecting the proposed stadium to Kelley Square. Ideally the Blackstone would be day lighted in this area (I hear the Kraft's did a similar day lighting operation in Foxboro?) providing a unique destination for shopping and dining that you could only experience in Worcester. Perhaps focusing on the entertainment idea may be a good focus, maybe a Kings Bowling Center (with a special Worcester only Candlepin Room?). We could have developers such as thee Cordish Co. out of Baltimore (Power Plant Live! in Baltimore and similar projects in numerous other cities) take a look and see what they can come up with. I think the ideal mix would be to have more of a corporate feel in and around the stadium blending into a more regional/local flavor in the Canal District with smaller shops, etc.
  7. Soccer as a metaphor for Worcester's return to the national scene - Soccer, like Worcester, is known to most people in the US. Soccer, like Worcester, is not thought of as a top tier sport (mid-sized city) in the US. 25 years from now I think soccer will be thought of as a top tier sport and I believe, if Worcester continues to make smart decisions, it too will be thought of as a top tier mid-sized US city.
Game on!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ride the AIRLINE - Single Seat Ride ORH to UMASS/Shrewsbury via Union Station

Proposed "Union Station - Fairlawn" Segment

Proposed "AIRLINE"

The idea of the Union Station - ORH bus rapid transit (BRT) system started as a way of getting people quickly and efficiently to/from ORH via downtown. However, as I thought more about it, it really also becomes a great opportunity to also connect and promote the development of a number of key Worcester neighborhoods, one example of which is the previous post about the Junction District.

This post builds on this idea of connecting Worcester's neighborhoods by extending the existing Union Station - ORH BRT line along the busy Shrewsbury St. corridor to the biotech and UMASS campuses and then along Route 9 into Shrewsbury. This proposed line, which I call the AIRLINE (a nod to the nickname for the old trolley line that formerly ran along Shrewsbury St. and Route 9 to Boston - apparently so called because it's route was a straight line between Worcester and Boston, much like an airline would take flying between the two cities) would provide for a single seat ride between ORH and the busy Shrewsbury Route 9 shopping corridor, serving Webster Square, Clark University/South Worcester, Junction District, Union Station, the Shrewsbury St. restaurant district, the biotech park and UMASS campuses and Lake Quinsigamond along the way.

The Union Station - Fairlawn leg as shown above is about 3.75 miles long, resulting in a total ORH - Fairlawn route length of approximately 10.25 miles. The Union Station - Fairlawn leg is envisioned to run along the existing Shrewsbury St. and Route 9 auto ROW, possibly with a priority lane/signal control and limited stops in order to provide fast service to/from Union Station.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Junction Shops - Future Home of Worcester's Video Game Design & Development Incubator?

Leaving Union Station, our first stop on the proposed Union Station - ORH bus rapid transit system is Junction District (so named because the area lies at the junction of several railroads and several well known Worcester neighborhoods such as Main South, Green Island, Downtown, and Canal). There are two distinct neighborhoods in the Junction District, to the west of the tracks is the Southbridge St. corridor and to the east is the 10+ acres of presently largely undeveloped brownfields that formerly made up the Wyman Gordan manufacturing complex. Today I want to head west, and specifically focus on the area within the brown outline on the above map.

With the recent ranking of Becker and WPI's video game design programs in the top 8 nationwide, there has been much talk lately about developing Worcester as Massachusetts's video game design & development capital. I strongly support this idea and would suggest we explore making the Junction Shops Historic District (the area outlined in brown above) ground zero for this effort and furthermore, target the historic Junction Shops (shaded brown above) as the home of a public/private partnership driven effort to construct a video game focused, live/work incubator. There is more than 500,000 SF of significantly underutilized historic mill building in this area that could be redeveloped as Massachusetts's video game design & development capital. A few reasons why we should look to the Junction Shops for a video game focused, live/work incubator:
  1. Preserving History - The Junction Shops is Worcester's original incubator space. The Junction Shops date to 1851 when Colonel James Esterbrook built the original "stone chips covered in stucco" structure as "rental space and power for small firms." The Junction Shops were home to numerous small industrial firms over the years, and incubated businesses such as the Cereal Machine Company (shredded wheat anyone?) and Knowles Loom Works (which would grow and merge with his competitor George Crompton to become Crompton & Knowles Loom Works on Grand St.) Worcester long term competitive advantage will be in marketing what makes Worcester different for other cities, and adaptively reusing 150 year old plus industrial incubator space to meets today's knowledge economy incubator needs is one way to carve out it's own niche.
  2. Great location - The Junction Shops is located just southwest of downtown Worcester (1/2 mile to City Hall), about 1/2 mile from the Kelley Square exit off of I-290 and with a stop on the Union Station - ORH bus rapid transit system at it's doorstep, it's just one stop and a 5 minute ride to Union Station or a no transfer, three stop, 15 minute ride to ORH.
  3. Hip Space for a Hip Industry - Converted former mill space with exposed brick walls and tall ceilings would make ideal space for today's growing video game design industry. While any existing office space could make due as video game design incubator space, I believe that adaptively reusing historic mill space would present the ideal image for companies in the video game design industry (and the Commonwealth too) and would provide these businesses with a competitive advantage over companies located in "the glass box in the suburban office park" which in turn would help them attract and retain the best talent in the industry.
  4. Opportunities for Spin Off - The Junction Shops themselves are approximately 200,000 SF of space. This leaves 300,000 SF plus of historic mills in a variety of sizes that could be developed by private developers as the transformation took hold. Furthermore, the lots between the Junction Shops and the Southbridge St. corridor are largely undeveloped which provide for long term opportunities for growth and eventual connection with downtown.
  5. Existing Financing Programs in Place to Help Finance the Junction Shop's Rehabilitation - Some of the Junction Shop buildings are more than 150 years old and show their wear. It would come as no surprise to me if it would cost $150 PSF to rehabilitate the 200,000 SF of space into modern incubator space - this is $30MM! The good news however, is Ted Carman of Concord Square Planning and Development of Boston really likes this building and he thinks he can help put together a financing mechanism he is now using in Greenfield that would provide about $0.45 of every $1.00 needed for the work (yes, that's $13.5MM!)! Ted would do this by using a leveraged New Markets Tax Credit financing structure with state and federal historic tax credits. It's very complicated, and the lawyer's fees are high, but for a $30MM deal it is well worth it! Bottom line is with this financing the deal could probably attract the debt and equity financing needed so that affordable rents averaging in the mid teens could probably be realistic.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Improving Access to ORH While Supporting Worcester's Economic Development

With MassPort's acquisition of Worcester Regional Airport (ORH) this past summer there has been some speculation that the airport access road issue will again come to the forefront. I know that access roads from I-290 to ORH have been studied along both the Hope Ave. and Cambridge St. corridors without much success and others promote a new exit off of the MassPike at its intersection with Rt. 56 as an alternative.

The I-290 auto connections look great on paper, but the costs (both $ and environmentally speaking) and takings necessary to carry either of these plans forward appear to be insurmountable hurdles. The MassPike/Rt. 56 option solves the problem at expected lower costs with fewer property takings, but would likely divert economic development from Worcester to this new Rt. 56 corridor for many years to come. I want to throw out a third alternative for consideration - a bus rapid transit system connecting Union Station and ORH.

The line would originate at Union Station and run within the P&W right-of-way (ROW) until it's junction with the CSX ROW where it will then run alongside the CSX ROW until it's intersection with James St. The busway will then turn north and connect up with Goddard Memorial Dr. on its way to ORH. I imagine a dedicated ROW along the rail lines and for the segment connecting to Goddard Memorial Dr. and then the busway using the existing Goddard Memorial Dr. ROW for the remainder of the busway.

According to Google Maps, the line would be approximately 6.5 miles long. Because the ROW would be separated from other traffic and have no streetlights, it would seem to me that average speeds of 30 MPH could certainly be achievable. This means a passenger boarding a bus at Union Station could be at the airport in just 13 minutes if there were no stops along the way. Even adding in a few stops, say three stops at two minutes per stop, we are still less than a 20 minute ride from Union Station to ORH!