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Worcester, Mass., Looks to Ice to Help Revitalize its Downtown

Andy Cohen 91412 Web

Worcester Common, then 20 acres of green space, was established in 1669. On July 14, 1776, it hosted the Declaration of Independence's first public reading in New England. And on Nov. 30, 2012, for the first time (as shown above), residents laced up their ice skates there.

Ice RinkIce Rink

Worcester Common, then 20 acres of green space, was established in 1669. On July 14, 1776, it hosted the Declaration of Independence's first public reading in New England. And on Nov. 30, 2012, for the first time (as shown on right), residents laced up their ice skates there.

But the Worcester Common Oval's 12,000 square feet of ice - city officials note with pride that their new outdoor recreational rink is larger than Rockefeller Center's - could be just the beginning. A proposal to build a two-sheet indoor hockey rink just down the street next to the main branch of the Worcester Public Library is being quietly promoted by the Worcester Business Development Corp. and greeted with unchecked enthusiasm by any number of collegiate, high school and youth hockey teams in the city.

That both projects have been the subject of some ridicule and consternation by citizens (concerned or otherwise) and civic activists/bloggers is of no consequence to city manager Michael O'Brien, who formerly served as commissioner of the city's parks, recreation and cemetery division.

"I think of it this way," O'Brien says. "I have 182,000 people to whom I have to provide basic services, amenities, economic development, arts and culture, and all these things you try to weave together to make a city desirable and provide a great quality of life. Out of 182,000 people, you're going to have detractors and naysayers, those who prefer to see everything stay status quo. If we were to stop and listen solely to them, we might as well fold up the sidewalk, close down the shops and call it a day. They can blog all they want; freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment, and I respect that. But I don't necessarily agree with their opinions. Nor do the vast majority of people in our community."



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Like a lot of urban centers, Worcester has made some questionable city planning moves over the years. The street that fronts City Hall (Front Street, in fact) had at one time offered a straight shot through to the city's public transportation hub and its Restaurant Row, but four decades ago these important downtown destination spots were delinked by a huge, monolithic concrete megamall. Around the same time, Worcester officials decided to double down on the grandeur of City Hall by constructing a reflecting pool that obliterated most of the usable space within the nearly six-acre Common. Particularly in the winter, with the reflecting pool drained to protect it from freeze-thaw damage, "we had this empty space that was devoid of activity and vitality," O'Brien says.

It was 14 years ago, according to O'Brien, that he and the parks department began development of a $7.8 million phased Worcester Common master plan that promised to set things right. (The first newspaper mention of the planned Worcester Common Oval was an amazing 11 years ago.) A '70s-era underground parking garage had left a plaza next to City Hall that was six feet above the grade of the rest of the Common and, as the renovation of the park (beginning with the removal of the reflecting pool) continued through the millennium's first decade, a plan took hold to situate the skating oval so that the plaza could serve as a natural viewing area. To one side would be constructed a $3 million pavilion that would serve as (among other things) a warming hut, skate rental operation, concessions area, ticketing booth and parking place for the ice resurfacer.

O'Brien and other city officials became targets of derision mainly because their vision of downtown Worcester failed to envision the coming worldwide economic crash. The oval itself, an 8-inch-thick slab of concrete set with pipes for circulating glycol under the ice, was only partially finished at the height of the financial and housing meltdown. Completed in 2009, the would-be rink became a popular destination in summer, with downtown workers lunching at the tables there - made of cast-iron and featuring the Worcester seal, and outfitted with umbrellas - and citizens enjoying evening concerts, film festivals and other weekday events. The local Farmers Market, held on the Common's street perimeter, brought families on weekends. Skating enthusiasts could only stare at the oval's iron railing and imagine the promised dasher boards standing in its place.

The missing ingredient was the ice. Or, more specifically, the rink's chiller, which was intended to be one more component of the pavilion.

"That phase was about $2.5 million to $3 million, so we had to be realistic," O'Brien says. "This was 2009. The housing bubble burst, banking institutions were almost insolvent, we had massive layoffs, so I held off on implementing that phase out of respect to the fact that the world had changed. I had to rethink the practicality."

When the winter of 2009-10 came and went with no ice, the critics took to their blogs. The city, meanwhile, kept working at downtown improvements, spending an estimated $94 million to knock down the megamall and begin creating CitySquare, a $563 million, multiphased private/public commercial real estate project totaling more than 2.2 million square feet of commercial, medical, retail, entertainment and residential space within a pedestrian-friendly, small-block street pattern. Along with the 2007 completion of the $30 million Hanover Theater for the Performing Arts southwest of the oval, the CitySquare project is reshaping the city's downtown core in profound ways. "It reconnects our city east to west," O'Brien says. "It's all based on the city hall frontage, with everything done to what we believe represents our value in parks, the history of the Common and the future of our community."

The future of the oval project, though, seemed to many residents to be less assured. The winter of 2010-11 came and went, with no ice. And the winter of 2011-12, too. O'Brien continued to look for an opportunity to complete the rink, which was, to him, bigger than just a rink. "It was about changing perceptions of downtown Worcester, about drawing families back to downtown, giving people market-rate housing and tying into the revitalization of this major area - all year long. We were always going to have a busy facility during spring, summer and fall, and there was clear community support for that fourth season."

The opportunity presented itself in the form of City Hall's 30-year-old, faltering air conditioning unit. "It was completely inefficient; we couldn't even get repair parts for it," says O'Brien. The solution involved replacing it with a chiller that could also serve, during the winter, as the chiller for the rink. As the subterranean City Hall garage was then under renovation, it seemed like a natural fit to put the new chiller down below and route the pipes from there to the oval.

The only obstacle was one that frequently trips up project planners - it required the rethinking of the original plan - but O'Brien was undaunted. Putting the chiller in the parking garage could mean opening the rink this winter. Could the pavilion's other components be put in place minus the pavilion?

The answer was yes, and not making the $3 million outlay on a permanent structure was only the most obvious benefit. In retrospect, it's a wonder the city didn't arrive at this solution earlier. "In the end, the delay and the rethinking made for a better opportunity to maximize the use of the Common," O'Brien says. "A new building, with all its access, egress, service areas and everything, would have taken up a very sizable piece of the active area of the Common, and would have obscured some of the views of the Common from some of these buildings that are coming back to life around it. Its street side would have been the service side, so it'd mainly have been a dark face. So we decided it should be set up in a more temporary fashion, tastefully, and then be able to be broken down to put the Common back into real productive reuse for the spring, summer and fall."



WARM FEELINGS Since the oval's completion in 2009, it has been a popular summertime destination for downtown workers and families.WARM FEELINGS Since the oval's completion in 2009, it has been a popular summertime destination for downtown workers and families.

Worcester Common Oval held its grand opening with patrons provided basic services using temporary structures just outside the rink's dasher boards, some of which were adorned with sponsor messages. People watched the skaters glide around the "Worcester" in-ice logo (a mesh hybrid material applied over a coat of white ice paint) from bleachers constructed on the existing plaza on either side of the steps into City Hall. O'Brien thinks it could be a work in progress - he's mulling over a semi-permanent facility that could be backed onto a below-grade temporary plaza on a flatbed trailer, in the style of the Worcester Lunch Car Company, which beginning a century ago produced diners and shipped them all over the Eastern Seaboard.

Just six weeks before it opened, O'Brien gave an interview to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in which he characterized the project as a "maybe" for this winter. "Could," "might" and "possible" were liberally tossed into that Oct. 15 story, even though it ran with a photo showing Department of Public Works employees installing the base that would hold the rink's perimeter glass.

O'Brien says he was just being careful - after enduring all the catcalls of previous winters, he wanted to make certain that the "maybe" was actually a "yes." There was more to it - he was still lining up private donors to help cover the estimated $125,000 operational cost for this season, as well as capital expenditures (bleachers, benches and lighting) associated with the rink. The private money came through. O'Brien's expectation is that in spite of the bumps along the way, "There will be very sizable interest, lots of community support - we know this year will be great, and next year will be even better."

And the year after that? More ice, possibly. The nonprofit Worcester Business Development Corp.'s two-sheet indoor rink proposal has representatives of hockey programs at Worcester State, Assumption College and Worcester Academy on board, as well as city councilors who would have to sign off on the plan. "This is an unbelievable idea," city councilor Michael Germain exclaimed in the Telegram & Gazette this fall. "Worcester is one of the great underserved hockey markets." Critics given a soapbox in the same story wondered primarily why hockey was a better fit for the area than a mix of office, residential and retail space (something CitySquare has largely taken care of), and worried about the effects of rink traffic on the library-using public.

The mix the WBDC is after involves residents coming downtown for recreation, as well as residents of other communities spending money in downtown Worcester during hockey tournaments. O'Brien says, also, that a rink honors the city's history and anticipates a present and future need.

"We have skating that has gone on for centuries in parks like Elm Park and Green Hill Park and University Park," O'Brien says. "What we've found, though, is that changing weather patterns have made those parks less reliable for the winter enthusiast and the skater. I will tell you, also, that Worcester and Central Massachusetts is amateur hockey central. There's a proud tradition of hockey and ice skating, and there is a marketplace for everything from kiddie to adult to collegiate hockey. We have 10 colleges in the city, many of which have teams, and availability of ice time is difficult to say the least. The demand is there."

O'Brien notes that the proposal is just that, and that any number of locations could serve a rink complex. But the library location has a lot to recommend it - the parking lot is shovel-ready and larger than needed (at the moment), it is close to restaurants and other potential pedestrian destinations, and it has what he sees as wintertime synergy with the Worcester Common Oval. "There's still a ways to go," he says. "Downtown, it's a tight urban core, and with a rink complex you have to provide parking, drop-off and pickup space. Will it be next to the library? Potentially. In this core downtown area? Most definitely. We're doing master planning now, and I suspect we'll have community endorsement of that master plan over the next four to six months."

In the meantime, since the city is not likely to provide anything beyond input to the hockey community - it would ultimately neither own nor operate the indoor rink - O'Brien is keeping his focus on future improvements to and potential synergies with the Worcester Common Oval. Although you wouldn't blame him for resting on his laurels a bit, given how long it took to bring the project to fruition.

"The Common's historic roots were as a gathering space, a place for public discourse, and we built the Oval with these historic roots in mind," he says. "In the 1600s, there was commerce - people brought their cattle and bushels of wheat down to the Common for sale. Now we've got medical school students studying and residents reading or taking in a concert. We really saw skating as an integral part of this economic development tool. The buildings around the Common are coming back to life. It functions now the way Central Park or Boston Common function. We've raised the value of surrounding real estate by investing in ourselves and one of the premier open spaces we have in the city."

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