September 3, 2018

The Canal Distric's now second-biggest developer seeks to avoid homogenization

(Above) Construction has begun on Allen Fletcher's proposed Kelley Square development, which (below) previously served as a parking lot.

Worcester's Canal District is no stranger to multi-million dollar developments.

The City of Worcester's Aug. 17th announcement of the AAA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox relocating to Worcester marked the third indication of major construction to redefine the neighborhood in as many years. First came the $18-million Fidelity Bank Worcester Ice Center completed in September 2017. Then, the $21-million Harding Green property broke ground in May. Now, Polar Park, the $240-million minor-league baseball development, is slated for 2021.

In each case, developers are bringing density to a cherished area of Worcester largely devoid of residents. In announcing the stadium deal, the city said, "The architecture, siting, and overall design of the ballpark will pay considerable attention to the unique characteristics of the Canal District. The ballpark will be designed to seamlessly fit into the Canal District and complement the existing feel of the area."

Photo | Courtesy
Allen Fletcher, Retired businessman & developer Harding Green

Perhaps no one understands the unique characteristics of the Canal District better than developer Allen Fletcher. Fletcher has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years and understands its strengths and weaknesses.

"When big public projects get their momentum, they tend to over-simplify, homogenize and systematically eliminate all character from what they're trying to improve," Fletcher said.

A $21M project

Fletcher's Harding Green development on the edge of Kelley Square will house 48 apartments and 20,000 square feet of retail space for owner-operated food stalls in what Fletcher has dubbed the Worcester Public Market. The market will have 30-40 vendors and in July received a $500,000 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources to buy kitchen equipment.

By comparison, the ballpark development will feature 250 apartment units along with 65,000 square feet of retail space. At the time of the ballpark's completion, Fletcher's mixed-use building will be nearly two-years-old.

Fletcher has made little changes to his original plan, save what he calls compulsive fiddling and second-guessing. He laments scaling the project down from its initial design, but resigns himself to the fact the plans are practical.

"We left a lot on the cutting room floor that I mourn when I really remember it all; but we've got a great project that seems to be capturing people's imaginations," Fletcher said.

His vision is built upon increasing walkability in a manner resembling other thriving cities.

"It's really kind of thrilling how much people seem to like it, but at the end of the day it's a commercial venture," he said.

Disruption, character concerns

Fletcher is apprehensive about ballpark construction's impact on his property but is hopeful for the final result.

"When all of the dust clears, the arrival of the PawSox will be great for the project and great for the district, but it's how to get from here to there that I worry about," he said.

His concerns include interim parking and the disruption of access to his property.

"We need all the help we can get when we come online, and it will be easy to get killed by just passive negligence on the part of the city. We're no longer the biggest thing going on in the Canal District," Fletcher said.

Most troubling for the developer is the impact a ballpark might have on Kelley Square.

"Our whole project is founded on that intersection as a legendary gateway to the district, and there's a reason – or a hundred reasons – why it has endured for as long as it has," Fletcher said.

Despite Kelley Square's reputation as one of the most dangerous intersections in the state of Massachusetts, Fletcher finds magic in its vast complexity.

He has high expectations that the Worcester Red Sox will build on the area's existing character rather than effacing it. He hopes the Massachusetts Department of Transportation will do the same in examining Kelley Square in favor of public-safety.

PawSox, city assurances

Pawtucket Red Sox Executive Vice President and General Manager Dan Rea said he is excited for the opening of Fletcher's Harding Green development and he looks forward to working closely with Fletcher and other members of the Canal District community.

"We've always said that a good ballpark needs a good neighborhood, and Harding Green's mix of uses further enhances the exciting live/work/play dynamic we're seeing in the Canal District and Worcester as a whole," said Rea.

City Manager Edward Augustus likewise views both projects as symbiotic.

"The growth and momentum of our already thriving Canal District will be strongly enhanced by the addition of two major development projects in Harding Green and the construction of a ballpark for the AAA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox," Augustus said. "Both projects will not only provide a heightened interest in the area by visitors, retailers and developers, but also those who decide to make the Canal District their home with approximately 300 new apartments coming online."

Fletcher's project will likely reach completion in late summer or early fall of 2019. Steel has gone up quickly, but he said, "the illusion of rapid progress will slow down soon enough."


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