Worcester's urban neighborhoods seeing new life

Upgrades include new or expanding businesses


scaffolding setup at Winslow Street Fire Station in Worcester, MA

Andre Masterson of Northbridge, an employee of Raymond James Restoration, sets up scaffolding at the former Winslow Street Fire Station in preparation for bricklaying.

WORCESTER - If the city's heart is downtown, busy roads leading to it are its arteries. But the businesses along Main, Chandler, Pleasant and Park streets wish more people would stop and spend a little money before they drive by.

Efforts to improve the business environment of these neighborhoods, and to attract investors, have taken years. Shrewsbury Street has been renovated and restaurants have blossomed. Pleasant Street is no longer one-way. Streetscaping on Chandler Street includes new street lights and storefronts.

Now, there's evidence it's paying off. A new retail building is planned for a vacant lot in Main South. A food store is opening on Pleasant Street; and a Park Avenue restaurant is expanding. Housing improvements in the Chandler Street area appear to be providing customers who support businesses.

“There's been a lot of changes, driven in large part by a real grass-roots initiative coming from the private sector to help grow this community,” said Timothy McGourthy, the city economic development director. “The challenge is convincing people outside the area that there is value within the area.”

The Chandler Street Business Association recently listed retail and residential business improvements in the area in a letter to the City Council. It also opposed building more lower-income housing in the neighborhood.

“There are many other examples that one can see just driving around. … It's time that the Worcester City Council takes closer notice of these happenings,” wrote Paul Collyer, association president.

There's no arguing improvements are happening.

They include:

  • Ed Hyder's Mediterranean Marketplace, at 408 Pleasant St. Mr. Hyder is expanding the restaurant's space in a former fire station, in response to increased demand for ethnic foods and spices.
  • A former gas station and cab company at 779 Main St., at the intersection of Main and LaGrange streets, is being renovated into a new restaurant by developer Arthur Mooradian.
  • A business block at 781-795 Main St., which includes the Main Street Superette and once housed Island Bakery, now is home to the Straight Up Cafe and a related thrift and clothing store.
  • A new 10,000-square-foot building, which will house a major retailer, is planned at 835 Main St., opposite Dunkin' Donuts at the intersection of Hammond and Main streets. Construction may start early next year.
  • Wilson Wang, owner of the award-winning Baba Sushi restaurant at 309 Park Ave., is opening a second restaurant in December called Kozara in the former Store 16 at 301 Park Ave. The new restaurant will sell Asian tapas and feature a raw and Tori bar.
  • The Living Earth Whole Foods Market & Supplement Center at 232 Chandler St., owned by Albert and Maggy Maykel, has expanded its business online and is improving its organic foods offerings.
  • EVO Dining, which is in the same building at The Living Earth but is owned and operated by the Maykels' children, is marking its fourth anniversary. It was named Worcester's Best Overall Restaurant this year in Worcester Living magazine.

One key to attracting customers is renovation, said Mr. Hyder of the Mediterranean Marketplace. “Construction always shows confidence, and that people are looking towards the future for better times,” he said.

“We need space for future expansion of the lines we are carrying and proper storage,” he said. “Our customers come from around the city and the region. I get people from out of state that make regular trips in.”

Mr. Mooradian, owner of Mooradian Real Estate, hopes to break ground in February on a new 10,000-square-foot retail building at Main and Hammond streets. It is one of many projects he has under way in Main South.

“It is a major retailer, and it took a lot of convincing to get him to go there and to put their faith in (Council) District 4 and Main Street and to spend the money,” he said. “We have a bad reputation, but a lot of it is undeserved. A lot of people are afraid just to go to District 4.”

Government funding cannot solve all the city's problems, he said. “Things don't happen by themselves. People think it's going to be good if you get a grant, if you get the government to help you,” he said. “Any sustainable improvement has to come from within the community and from the people.”

Infrastructure improvements are also under way in Main South, which already features a wide variety of ethnic businesses. A large part of the street has been recently repaved and efforts and are under way to improve building storefronts.

Ms. Maykel, matriarch of the family that created Living Earth and EVO Dining, said Worcester retailers face stereotypes, not only about Chandler Street but about Worcester itself, in trying to attract customers. “It is a wonderful thing to develop your city, but you need to patronize it, develop it, live in it and make it a community,” said Ms. Maykel. “They move out to the towns, and they say, `We love West Boylston.' Well, what's wrong with Worcester?”

Celeste Maykel and Albert Maykel III, siblings and co-owners of EVO Dining, said perceptions of crime in Main South are exaggerated. “I don't think there's anything that happens here that is more than what happens anywhere else. People just focus on it more,” she said.

Albert Maykel Jr., son of the late Worcester District Court Judge Albert Maykel, said while Chandler Street is a better location than his business' former spot on Pleasant Street, it won't help unless he can get passersby to patronize his business. “Chandler is a thoroughfare, from one side of the city to the other. Unless you slow travelers down, they're going to just zip right through,” he said. “But if you have shops that appeal to them, they feel more comfortable stopping.”

Mr. Collyer believes commercial success rests on interdependence among housing, jobs, businesses and customers. He thinks hosting three Community Development Commissions — each pushing redevelopment of low-income housing with federal and state money — hurts business. Businesses need more middle-class housing moving in, not low-income housing, he said. “Ask them who the majority of their customers are, whether they're coming from the immediate neighborhood, and they'll say no,” he said. “They're (the CDCs) developing entire streets, entire neighborhood blocks. We just don't feel that's necessary,” he said in an interview. “People talk about bringing the middle class back to the Canal District and City Square. We want the same thing down here on Chandler.”

Mr. Mooradian agrees. Private housing developers can't compete with the CDCs' subsidized housing, he said. “They're (the CDCs) building units for $350,000 and selling them for $125,000,” he said.

Mr. Collyer lives in one of the three-deckers he restored, and organizes an annual blues and jazz festival intended to promote the neighborhood. “I've bought burned-out buildings in the neighborhood, and there would be five others next to you. But that's no longer the case. There are a lot of people who are investing in the neighborhood,” he said. He favors renaming the area “The Village of Piedmont.” The Maykels say Becker College is studying other possible names.

Mr. Hyder has another idea: “Call it Park Avenue East. That sounds fancier.” (Chandler is named for a leading colonial family loyal to the British that was expelled after the Revolution.)

Mr. McGourthy compared the area to sections of Boston, particularly Jamaica Plain, where ethnic and racial diversity breed prosperity. “It has a great opportunity to build on all the things that create a vital, interesting area,” he said.

“Shrewsbury Street is ahead of Chandler in terms of encouraging a pedestrian experience, but I think Chandler is pushing in that direction. The more density, the more restaurants, the more bars and night life you can get down there, the more it will start to take hold as a destination,” he said.