April 15, 2019

Redevelop the Midtown Mall, not the tenants

The Worcester Redevelopment Authority has been far from subtle this spring with Dean Marcus, owner of the Midtown Mall in downtown, about its plans to seize his property via eminent domain and give it to a new developer if he doesn't start making significant investments in the property. Unless Marcus somehow completely reverses course after decades of almost no upgrades, we see the WRA getting that acquisition process in full swing by summer's end. Generally seen as a last resort option, the WRA's position reflects decades of frustration with the mall's lack of reinvestment.

As part of his appeal to keep the property, Marcus has reasoned his lack of investments has kept rents low for many minority-owned startup or small businesses primarily serving lower-income clients. Whether or not this strategy was his intention or just a side effect of spending so little to improve the property, his statement rings true. During the economic downturn 10 years ago, precious little retail activity occurred downtown, and the building was among the few places with real foot traffic. Now with new investments and attention being poured into other downtown properties, the city is trying to keep that momentum going by shoring up highly visible, weak properties. However, the outcome should not be the disenfranchisement of these small firms, as they add to the diverse mix of offerings in the city. Worcester City Councilors, including Candy Mero-Carlson, Gorge Russell and Sarai Rivera, have expressed concern about the fate of the Midtown Mall business tenants. They should have a place to grow and prosper, and not be collateral damage because of their landlord's lack of investment.

The City Council should hold city officials to account for their promises to help the Midtown Mall businesses with relocation assistance, which must include financial support for their moving expenses and to soften any large monthly rent increases.

With more than $100 million being poured into the Mercantile Center next door and the Grid District on the other side of Worcester Common, it would be detrimental to the city's primary commercial neighborhood to have a facility with crumbling interiors and worn out floors in the heart of downtown. If Marcus can't or won't make necessary improvements, then somebody else should. Ideally, eminent domain wouldn't be necessary; and as long as Marcus is adequately compensated, the WRA is right in spurring investment with a new developer.

Redevelopment is about bringing in new money to make a property, a neighborhood or a city a more desirable place to live, work and visit. One of the vexing twists of development success is neighborhoods get more expensive and some can't afford the increased cost. Worcester is a still a low-cost market, and while commercial values are increasing, full-on gentrification is still a ways off. But as the momentum continues, the city needs to give those businesses who have hung in there for the long term a chance to thrive.


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