"The phenomenon is strangling us"
Polar Park's stifling effect on nearby businesses runs much deeper than parking
Perhaps the most recurring issue around Polar Park since it opened has been parking and I know I know it’s the most townie thing ever to complain about and big whoop, it might take you a little bit longer to drive around or you might have to pay a little bit more for a spot. Parking in and of itself is not an issue worth spending any mental energy on. But it is an instructive way to look at the way in which Polar Park negatively impacts nearby businesses. There have been countless stories over the past few weeks in which business owners in the Canal District complain that sales are down on game days and their customers avoid the area. The city needs to create more parking, they say, and enforce the existing rules. But that’s not even close to the full extent of the problem.
Allen Fletcher, owner of the Worcester Public Market, went on Talk of the Commonwealth the other day to complain. He said his business is down 40 percent on game days. People park their cars on the street around the market, then they sit inside Polar Park for however long a baseball game lasts. Like 3.5, almost 4 hours sometimes.
“I did not anticipate this, to tell you the truth,” he said. “The word was always ‘You’re going to get a great bump in sales when the fans come around.’ And I always said, you know, we don’t need it. We’re a success but we’ll accept it. I personally did not anticipate that it would be bad for business, and that’s what it is.”
Indeed, Fletcher is right to point out that throughout the entire process of negotiating with the team, landing a deal, pitching the deal to the community and even while building the park, city leaders would talk off-hand about the “economic spinoff” that the park would bring. It was a line that was accepted as fact by almost everyone. Those who pointed out the park would probably have the opposite effect on nearby businesses, myself among them, were cast as naysayers.
But as the interview goes on, Fletcher begins to cast the problem as short-term. After correctly identifying that the park was hurting his business, he rather naively says that as the season goes on, people are going to get more and more used to the neighborhood, and make more and more of a day of it. Idk about that duuuude.
In the short term, he describes the problem as twofold. The city is not enforcing the two-hour limit on street parking, and that game days force regular customers away from the Canal District.
“Eventually I think things will get better,” he says. And he’s sort of right in that eventually less people will be going to games and there will be less of a negative impact on the ballpark. But that’s not how he meant it, or at least how he said it. His position is that after the kinks are worked out with parking, it’s going to be all gravy, baby. But not right now. Now, he said, “the phenomenon is strangling us.”
The issues with Polar Park as they relate to the thriving retail and restaurant scene around it run so much deeper than parking a car. Over the past few years, the Canal District, and Green Street in particular, have blossomed into a thriving corridor of small restaurants and shops. It’s perhaps the one place in Worcester where Worcester feels like a city. And it’s because it’s dense. It’s walkable. It had a sort of natural design built in that allowed it to grow.
When we plopped Polar Park right next to it, we throttled that natural design. The most likely outcome here is that in a few years’ time Polar Park will have destroyed any of the good juju the Canal District had been whipping up and entrepreneurs in the city will have to find a new corridor, further away from City Hall’s ham-fisted attempted at “urban renewal,” and in another decade or two we might have another neighborhood that feels like a real city. But then City Hall will come in and urban-renewal it to death. This is a cycle Worcester loves repeating and we’ve been repeating it since I-290 put a poison dagger through the heart of the city’s urban fabric. I’m not an expert on this stuff by any means, but I find it interesting and I listen to the experts. I want Worcester to be a real city and there are people who know how to design cities to make them real. Worcester City Officials categorically ignore these people. When it came time to approve Polar Park, their concerns were dismissed offhand by the people in charge of the city. When I called up Alex Tarr, a professor of urban geography at Worcester State University, he said the decision to put a ballpark there is part of a general pattern of “aggressive mediocrity” in the city. I love that term and couldn’t agree more.
“It’s the one part of the city that didn’t need it,” he said. The businesses on Green Street and Water street were doing just fine. They’re locally owned and they’re well supported by the density around it. He said he used to take students there to show them what a real functioning urban economy should look like. The small businesses are diverse and support a variety of immigrant neighborhoods as well as each other and, like a little ecosystem, the neighborhood was able to sustain itself and grow naturally.
“None of that benefits from a stadium,” said Tarr. “These types of businesses need low interest loans and block grants, traffic calming measures, safety lights.”
Tarr brought up the example of Dive Bar, which closed last year because the landlords wanted to convert the space into a baseball-themed restaurant, or so the rumor goes.
“If that place had gotten money to just, like, fix the bathrooms, it would be a successful business but instead you’ve got these shitty landlords speculating on a baseball stadium.”
It’s urban geography 101, he said, to think about who a city’s for.
“The baseball stadium as far as I can tell is not for Worcester. It’s not for people coming to eat at the Vietnamese restaurants, and not for people who are coming to go to the local bars, it’s not people sticking around to hear music at night,” he said.
“The people who made those businesses successful are going to continue to be pushed away by the stadium crowds, that would be my guess.”
So economic spinoff, eh? I asked him.
“Oh yeah, no, that’s a total fantasy,” he said and chuckled. “Like empirically. If that was true Pawtucket would be the coolest place in New England.”
So it’s not really going to help nearby businesses. But, Tarr said, the thing it’s really going to do is drive property values up and increase real estate speculation in the area.
“They make money. Developers make money. But that doesn’t help the city. It doesn’t help the developers that are already there. It doesn’t help the people who are living in Green Island. And the other last part of it is it doesn’t create jobs, which is what the city actually needs. The property values are going to keep going up, but that only works if people can keep paying for them.”
So the ballpark is set to strangle nearby businesses while the speculation around it real estate-wise is set to make it impossible for the existing businesses or people to live there.
Who could have seen this coming??
But that’s the rub. While the city sold this project to the community as one that would bring economic spinoff, it was only ever a selling point. It wasn’t the goal. The goal is raising property values and this city administration carries out that goal with wanton disregard for how it impacts the naturally developing economic ecosystems of the city. So if you care about Worcester as a city, if you care about the people that live here and you want it to have cool interesting neighborhoods and you want the sort of vibrancy that comes with a rich diversity of people and an real estate market that allows regular people to take risks to make cool things happen, you’re left with really one option. You have to root for the city’s economic development project—and yes, that includes the ballpark—to fail.
If you’d like to get more into the urban design weeds as it relates to Worcester I highly suggest listening to Joyce Mandell on the podcast Public Hearing (which is great). Mandell is my go-to person when it comes to urban design stuff in Worcester, and her work over at Jane Jacobs In The Woo is singular for understanding how this city could and should look differently.
It is a crime against the natural order of things that this…
…was allowed to happen. And damn it we need answers.
Later this week I think I might write about our beloved statue and the absolutely insane backstory of how it was made. But until then, I leave you with the above rant.
Much love everyone and please if you can throw a couple bones my way so I can continue to do this! Or spread the word we just love to see it.
Yeah, parking is a townie thing to care about, but it's also a huge fucking problem that everyone knew about going into this. People have been banging the drum about the issues with parking and displacement in this part of the city for over a decade, at least since the Theatre District Master Plan that the WBDC was pitching (and has partially achieved at the cost of affordable housing). "It's a problem that will solve itself" is a hell of a way to say "we'll just knock down your favorite spots and build a new $10/hr garage."
Great article Bill. I highly recommend checking out https://www.strongtowns.org/. I believe there are articles in Jane Jacobs in the Woo on there as well!