View story at wbjournal.com
Photo: Edd Cote
By Grant Welker
Peer through openings cut in temporary construction walls, and there stand two escalators from the former Worcester Center Galleria and Worcester Common Outlets, looking like fossils from another age.
As vestiges of a different retail era – and a much different time for downtown Worcester – they’ll soon be removed. Taking their place just on the other side of the wall is a massive staircase designed to evoke a strong sense of place and a place to gather – and to offer a symbol of the property shedding its past as part of a sprawling mall.
“The whole idea is to get rid of that mall feel,” said Chip Norton, the owner of Franklin Realty Advisors Inc., the owner and developer of Mercantile Center. “It’s a statement for our project.”
The staircase is a small but illustrative piece of a much larger $36-million overhaul of Mercantile Center, including the first new retail spaces on the old mall site since its demolition. New spaces along the edges of the center’s towers are envisioned as restaurants and other retail uses that will enliven a development with 642,000 square feet of space – almost 30 percent of which is vacant.
“We want to get a user that’s going to activate the plaza,” Norton said.
The retail plans
It isn’t just that there didn’t used to be retail along Mercantile Street. Mercantile Street didn’t exist at all.
In the years since the mall was demolished and downtown’s old street grid reconnected, the blocks just east of Worcester Common have taken on an entirely new look that comes with reborn retail space.
Mercantile Street, which now runs where the central walkway of the mall once stood, has been lifeless for much of the time since the mall was taken down, with the edge of Mercantile Center covered by a blank wall.
Norton envisions three retailers, such as restaurants, taking up 25,000 square feet along Mercantile Street, including what’s envisioned as a landmark, two-story space near Foster Street.
Norton said one restaurant is already under agreement – he wouldn’t specify the name or type of the eatery – and two other spaces are in negotiation, with the first of those spaces slated to open in early 2018, Norton said.
Niche Hospitality Group – which owns and operates Worcester restaurants like The Fix Burger Bar and Mezcal Tequila Cantina – is in negotiations for those two remaining spaces, Niche President Mike Covino said.
All this retail is designed to not only bring visitors to the Mercantile Center but provide additional amenities for the 1,500 people who occupy the leased office spaces and the 2,000 or more people Norton hopes will fill the developments once it is fully leased out.
On the other side of the property, by Commercial Street, another 32,000 square feet of commercial space is planned. There isn’t yet a timeline for those tenants, but the vision is for users that will drive foot traffic and make the property more attractive both to office tenants and anyone looking to visit for dining or entertainment.
Worcester’s new downtown
Shops and restaurants at Mercantile Center will be joined by the 168-room AC Hotel by Marriott under construction across Front Street and the first phase of 145 Front Street, which will eventually include retail spaces and 365 apartments. The first phase of the $90-million 145 Front Street project is expected to be completed this fall.
City Councilor Tony Economou recalled hanging around the Galleria as a kid, and then the site’s defunct days.
“And then to see the resurrection, it’s amazing,” said Economou, who chairs the council’s economic development committee. “What’s happened in our city in just the last two years … You’re seeing that 18-hour city come alive.”
Mercantile Center’s street-front spaces will be among the most visible aspects of the much larger, 636,000-square-foot office-and-retail space renamed Mercantile Center in 2016 as part of the transformation.
A renovation of the lobby at 100 Front St. is slated to begin imminently, working on nights and weekends.
Down the road, the long-empty Foothills Theater, partially underground near the center’s parking garage, could be restored as part of the Mercantile Center as performance space with several hundred seats.
“I see that falling into place more when everything is more defined,” Norton said.
Since Norton started developing the property, new tenants to the property include UMass Memorial Health Care with 92,000 square feet.
The two-story UMass information-technology office is more than halfway toward what will eventually total 500 workers by this fall. The hospital system is implementing an online patient charting program, and will bring IT workers together that are now spread among several locations.
UMass was attracted to the space because the modern layout would better foster collaboration than its current offices, said Renee Mikitarian-Bradley, UMass’ associate vice president of real estate.
UMass wanted to be a part of the remade neighborhood, she said.
“We really loved the new owners’ vision,” she said. “The retail areas, the restaurant areas, all the things you just don’t find in traditional Worcester space right now.”