Hartford, Worcester Map Similar Downtown Revival Plans

Wed July 28, 2004 - Northeast Edition

WORCESTER (AP) Two New England cities; matching downtown renewal plans.

Worcester and Hartford are following similar blueprints to attract the right mixture of retail, office and residential.

The plan in central Massachusetts involves razing the enclosed mall — Worcester Common Outlets — and replacing it with a pedestrian-friendly mix of retail, office and residential space, including 350,000 sq. ft. of retail space and 225,000 sq. ft. of new office space.

Boston-based developer Berkeley Investments wants to build 250 to 300 apartments for seniors, and another 114 market-rate apartments or condominiums.

In the Connecticut capital, the Hartford Civic Center Mall, built in 1975, has evolved into a municipal embarrassment in recent years due to numerous tenant departures. The project calls for a 36-story tower with 262 luxury apartments.

Retail and city planning experts agree on one point: Worcester and Hartford will face some tough challenges. One of the biggest will be getting the right mix of shopping and downtown residents with the disposable income to support such stores.

“The trend in retail is toward a new urbanism, away from the enclosed mall and toward something like a downtown village,” Jeffrey S. Green, founder of Jeff Green Partners, a California-based retail-consulting firm, told the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester. Green has been a consultant to Hartford and visited Worcester last month to look at some of the projects under way.

The residential parts of both projects will be crucial to their success, said Philip Bess, director of graduate studies in the school of architecture at the University of Notre Dame.

“Downtowns should, in my opinion, be thought of more as high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods,” said Bess, “meaning above all that they should include a significant residential component.”

Visitors to Hartford can’t miss the construction in every corner of the city’s downtown. Amid the pounding beat of jackhammers and the high-pitched beeps warning of trucks backing up, small handwritten signs point pedestrians to lunch spots that are open during construction.

The attached Civic Center, which has succeeded as a home to concerts and University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball games, will remain. But the retail space, with its enormous cement facades that inspired the nickname “The Bunker,” is in for big changes.

A $160-million project funded by the state and Northland Investment Corp. of Boston, will turn the mostly vacant mall “inside out,” said Dean C. Pagani, spokesman of the Capital City Economic Development Authority and Hartford’s unofficial tour guide for anyone with an interest in the project.

“Right now you walk in and you’re inside this big uninviting shopping mall,” he said. “That’s going to come down, and now the retail space will face the street.”

The redeveloped mall, called Hartford 21, will include 53,000 sq. ft. of retail space facing the street, 93,000 sq. ft. of office space and 800 parking spaces.

Two skywalks, which attached the old mall to adjacent buildings, will be torn down to encourage pedestrians to visit the street-side attractions.

Construction on Hartford’s new mall is expected to be completed by 2006.

A goal of the project in Worcester will be to connect its new mall project to Union Station, Shrewsbury Street and Main Street. Hartford’s is aimed at encouraging residents and visitors to walk around the disparate parts of its downtown.

“There are some neat neighborhoods around the city that can really benefit from this,” Pagani said. “Now our job is to teach them how they can benefit from the new visitors this will attract.”