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WooSox stadium project falling behind schedule, with property acquisitions looming

April 11, 2019
Photo/Grant Welker
Photo/Grant Welker
Worcester officials have a tight deadline for acquiring and demolishing properties for a ballpark off Madison Street.

In order to keep the timeline running smoothly for the $101-million Worcester Red Sox stadium opening in 2021, city officials are expecting to begin demolition of the businesses along Washington Street by June, which leaves the city little wiggle room to buy and relocate those businesses in a few months.

The Pawtucket Red Sox want to begin playing in a new Canal District ballpark in exactly two years, in April 2021. The city and the team said in their contract they have a goal of beginning ballpark construction in July.

Already, the project is starting to fall a bit behind. The city, by contract, was to have the ballpark parcel by April 1 but has not yet done so.

Falling a couple weeks behind schedule isn't a major detriment for the project, and that time can easily be made up in the two years before the 2021 opening. However, that tight timeline highlights the importance of the need for the city to move quickly on the property acquisitions necessary to build the ballpark.

The bulk of the property for the stadium and the surrounding mixed-use development totalling $240 million will come from the 18-acre Wyman Gordon site, which developer Madison Downtown Holdings bought in March. Madison will transfer ownership of part of that parcel to the city for the ballpark.

The rest of the land necessary for the ballpark will come from seven properties along Washington Street in the Canal District, including Paul's Mobile Auto Glass, Auto Body Supplies & Paint, and MedStar, an ambulance service.

All of those property owners declined to comment for this story, with some choosing instead to express their frustration with the process only privately.

The city's position

Even though city officials believe the cost of building the WooSox stadium will be offset by the lease payments from the team and tax revenues from the rest of the mixed-use development – which includes hotels and apartments – Worcester taxpayers ultimately are on the hook for the $101 million, so city officials are motivated to keep the property acquisition costs low.

At the same time, the city needs to avoid a protracted fight with the Washington Street property owners in order for the stadium to open by 2021.

The city eventually could take those properties via eminent domain. That would be a lengthy legal process delaying the project by months, and the city wouldn't be guaranteed to win such a battle, as it would center on whether or not the stadium is in the public good.

Worcester Chief Development Office Michael Traynor said the city prefers to reach a negotiated acquisition price and has a legal obligation to make every reasonable effort to do so. If an agreement cannot be reached, the Worcester Redevelopment Authority will acquire any particular property by the use of its eminent domain authority, he said.

The authority is meeting Friday morning to vote on potentially authorizing the purchase of three properties: 50 Washington St., where a UMass Memorial Health Care ambulance service facility and AMC Demolition are located; 127 Washington St., where Paul's Mobile Auto Glass is located; and 134 Madison St., home to The Sublime Co., a small shop.

Photo/Grant Welker
Photo/Grant Welker
Paul's Mobile Auto Glass, at Madison and Washington streets, is one of three properties the Worcester Redevelopment Authority is looking to buy, with a vote as soon as Friday.

In an eminent domain court case, a judge would have to decide if the city has a proper use taking private property and forcing the relocation of businesses, said John Mullin, a professor emeritus in regional planning at UMass Amherst. The ballpark would be publicly owned but its tenant a private for-profit entity.

Mullin said the city would likely win an eminent domain case on the argument of economic development or intangible benefits.

"My gut tells me that there's a public good in this," Mullin said, using a key phrase – public good – that's weighed heavily in whether a court approves taking of private land. The term is loosely defined, he said, leaving the city wiggle room for making its case.

But any eminent domain case would likely be costly and slow-moving, Mullin said. The process is often a last resort for public bodies and one used far less often today.

"It would be incumbent on the city to please these guys," Mullin said of property owners who are in the way of the ballpark. "In this case, time is money."

Among businesses on the seven Washington Street properties is a UMass Memorial Health Care ambulance service facility and AMC Demolition, which both lease their properties.

AMC Demolition has to find a new site after operating in that location for more than 20 years. Owner Steve Marble co-founded the business in 1997.

"We're not thrilled, but we understand," Marble said of the need to move.

UMass Memorial said it has begun vetting other sites.

Photo/Grant Welker
Photo/Grant Welker
MedStar, an ambulance service, will have to quickly relocate from Washington Street under a time frame for the planned Worcester ballpark. Its owners have declined to comment.
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The Sublime Co., a shop selling cannabidiol products, smoking accessories and jewelry, opened in the former longtime home of the fishing shop The Lower Forty just after the city's deal with the Red Sox was announced in August. It stands where the first base line of the ballpark is planned.

Owner Joe O'Grady, who also owns and runs the adult entertainment club Hurricane Betty's on Southbridge Street, bought the property in 2016 for $195,000. He declined to comment.

None of the business properties standing in the way of the ballpark are assessed by the city at particularly high amounts.

The Paul's Mobile Auto Glass site, at less than one-fifth of an acre, was last assessed at $161,600. Owner Paul Harrington bought the property in 2004 for $325,000.

The Sublime Co.'s property, less than half that size, is assessed at $153,900.

The 19,000-square-foot building hosting Auto Body Supplies & Paint was last assessed at $737,200. MedStar's two properties total $329,100.

Photo/Grant Welker
Photo/Grant Welker
Much of the site for the planned ballpark is used for parking or is vacant. The city is looking to begin work for the park this summer, with the Pawtucket Red Sox due to move in by April 2021.

City officials have said costs for land taking, business relocation assistance and demolition are included in its $101 million budget for the park. Such so-called soft costs are pegged at $11 to $15 million.

Predicting an eminent domain outcome

In addition to Mullin, Boston College law professor Zygmunt Plater said the city would have a relatively clear-cut case on being able to use eminent domain to take any properties for which it couldn't reach sale agreements.

"It's to build an economic multiplier, to create momentum in the community in a variety of different ways," Plater said of the proposed ballpark and other ways eminent domain could be used. "In this case, it's quite clearly a proper public purpose."

Robert McNamara, a senior attorney for the Virginia nonprofit Institute for Justice, which advocates for First Amendment and private property rights, was more guarded in his assessment.

Courts are increasingly scrutinizing the use of eminent domain to convey land to a private entity instead of public use, McNamara said.

The site's public ownership but private use would be critical in any court argument, he said, cautioning he didn't closely study the Worcester proposal.

A key argument is whether the ballpark is for a public good or a private beneficiary, McNamara said. Such court cases, which are occasionally used in stadium projects, are rarely quick or easy processes.

"Government entities massively underestimate how long it takes to use eminent domain and how much skepticism they're going to face from the court," McNamara said. "It is uniformly harder to use eminent domain than any government entity believes it to be."

One prominent eminent domain case offering legal precedent took place in Lawrence in the late 1980s.

In that case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of a project aimed at redeveloping a section of the city's blighted waterfront. The project – which never came to fruition – would have brought Emerson College to the city from Boston. The court found Lawrence's efforts to attract Emerson before declaring the riverfront stretch blighted was not done in bad faith.

Photo/Grant Welker
Photo/Grant Welker
A Wyman Gordon building at Washington and Lamartine streets would remain as part of a planned mixed-use development across Madison Street from the ballpark.