A Chat With Worcester’s Town Planner

Earlier this week I had an enlightening discussion on the current and future development of my hometown Worcester, Massachusetts, with its Town Planner, Joel J. Fontane, Jr. Mr. Fontane was very kind to speak with me especially with such a busy schedule, dealing with all the new construction and revamping of the downtown area.

Not having much knowledge of what goes into the planning and development of a town, it was a pleasant surprise to hear all the small details that go into making a city “as vibrant a city as it can be with the highest quality of life it can provide for its residents. You want it to be a good place to live, a good place to raise a family” (Fontane).

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Worcester’s Plan for City Square II

When designing new projects for a city there is much emphasis on “a pedestrian friendly environment, a place that you want to go to. Not drive through, not get past, not go around, but go to” (Fontane). Those details are everything; signage, sidewalk bump-outs, windows, buildings and other public amenities such as parks like the Commons, outdoor seating, all these things are important to catering to a livable downtown area.

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An old postcard photo of the Worcester Common

Recently an ice skating rink was built downtown in the Worcester Commons, but they had to devise a plan on how to use it during the 9 months when it wasn’t skating season, so now they use it as an outdoor dining area. The area has become very successful. At the commons there is also a new outdoor concert series on Fridays in the summer and movies four times a year.

There is a strong emphasis on sense of place when thinking about designing and implementing new things to revitalize a once nearly dead downtown area. “What we’re trying to do is create a place that’s inviting for people to get out of the car and do things and experience” (Fontane). The long term effects of such planning and design also come into play such as health benefits and community development. Mr. Fontane explained how “having places for people to be active and walk or participate in outdoor activities or recreation are all important because people need these outlets, it supports community development.”

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Garden Outside Hanover Theater

Planning and Development also caters to investors as well as people looking to live in Worcester. When creating new districts such as the City Square II project (which will revitalize the downtown/city hall area), or the Canal District (a lively restaurant and club atmosphere), they invest in the façade of a place in order to attract more business and developers hoping to get in on the action. They have a program coming out of the Planning and Development office that helps businesses keep up their business fronts while the city maintains the rest of the outdoor area to keep it a high quality, compact setting that people would enjoy walking in.

Most of the new development has been received with excitement and happiness. But, ironically, when Planning and Development asked the town about getting rid of some sprawl in the form of large parking lots to create the Canal District, people were upset after initially Okaying it. Now people are complaining about the lack of on street parking despite the cities’ investment in the downtown parking garage that already exists next to Union Station and the rebuilt parking Garage next to the former Worcester Common Outlets (which has since been demolished to make way for the new City Sqaure II).

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Worcester’s Hanover Theater

On the horizon, there is talk of revitalizing the theater district in which Hanover Theater currently exists. The Hanover Theater was renovated a few years ago and has added immensely to the city life in the downtown area. Fontane also expressed he would like to further implement what is being done in the Canal District to all the neighborhood, business and commercial “nodes;” Pleasant and Richmond Street, Tatnuck Sqaure, June and Chandler Street, Highland Street, and the downtown area.

With all this new construction and revitalization of the city, Worcester will become more than just a city, it will become a “place” as Mr. Fontane said; a destination that people will want to go to, enjoy and live in.

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