Midtown Mall in Worcester (MONTAGE): The shopping center that never was…but somehow still is.

Contrary to my expectations, in eight years of blogging, my articles on dying or dead malls have proven some of my most popular. My pics have served as the visual accompaniment to a DIY Vaporwave song on YouTube, and, most recently, NJ Chasing News interviewed me about the state of retail in greater NYC (with the TV segment hosted on YouTube).

And now I’m back with something I rarely do: a photomontage. I tend to avoid this approach not because I dislike it but because the placement of photos is a tremendous amount of work—often more time consuming than the act of analytical writing.

But this “mall” is too juicy to pass up. And too obscure as well. It’s in the heart of the downtown of Worcester, Massachusetts’s second largest city.IMG_7731As the low-key decal above the door indicates, the name is Midtown Mall, which reveals the first of many errors in judgment that make this declining shopping corridor the stuff of legend. With the possible exception of Charlotte (the only city I know that refers to its downtown as “Uptown”) most places that even use the Midtown label would place it somewhere between the downtown—the center of it all—and their uptown, usually an outlying but not quite suburban neighborhood. Not Worcester apparently. The Midtown Mall is unmistakably downtown. Here’s the view directly across the street:IMG_7729That’s the town hall on the left. And immediately behind it is Worcester Common, which serves—as is usually the case in New England—as the centermost green space.IMG_7730

So why call it Midtown Mall? I can only speculate that, at one time, it competed with something else—a postulate I will expand upon at the end of this article. The best I can determine from research is that the building formerly hosted a Woolworth’s, which the owner at that time converted to a mall-like format over 30 years ago after it closed. True though that may be, I suspect the date is off; the style of the interior (not to mention the wear-and-tear) looks quite a bit older than 1987. Possibly 1977, or even earlier.IMG_7693The design is conventional: a double-loaded corridor connecting one block to another, with exits at the two poles of the axis. Midtown Mall has about half of a second floor with additional shops, and a basement that essentially duplicates the configuration of the main floor.

Let’s view the ground floor first.IMG_7698It’s not completely untenanted, but never have I been in a mall where I’ve so struggled to determine which storefronts actually host functional businesses. Why? Because virtually all of them are filled with junk.

IMG_7696IMG_7697

Here’s a better view of that second one:IMG_7711My guess is that about one-third of the businesses at Midtown Mall operate on any regular basis. On a sunny Saturday morning, I believe three were running. At first blush, it’s hard not to wonder why these properties are allowed to remain in this condition. After all, how does it help the tenants who actually remain in business to have such unsightly neighbors?

Proceed down the hall a bit further and we encounter what probably serves as the hub of Midtown Mall: the atrium-style point with both access to the large basement and the much smaller upper floor.IMG_7699I was particularly taken by the strange piece of furniture leaning against the railing. It’s not a desk, or an armoire, or a credenza. What is it? Clearly not useful enough to find another purpose besides taking space in a neglected mall, even though it appeared in better condition than most everything else nearby. Then again, take a look at the atrium from another angle, and you scan see the function of the functionless furnishing:Midtown MallIt’s blocking access to the escalators, which don’t look like they’ve been operational for years.

IMG_7702IMG_7701Turn the corner from this atrium, and we encounter a convenience store that buys gold and silver.IMG_7703It wasn’t clear to me if the tenant on the lefthand side of the hallway (4U) was in operation. Around the corner in the distance, natural light radiates through a glass door back to the outside—it’s the opposite entrance to Midtown Mall.

Returning to the atrium, at the foot of the stairs going up, we encounter an unquestionably viable business, albeit a public one:IMG_7700It’s a bit surprising to see a location of the US Postal Service in a relatively obscure location, considering this is the downtown of city of well over 100,000 people.Screen Shot 2017-08-05 at 5.13.46 PMTurn out there is a primary branch for Worcester (the one to the east) as well as a third location, immediately to the southwest of the Midtown Mall branch at 22 Front Street. While I suspect the southwestern location is a distribution center that lacks a client interface, the fact remains that the USPS has too locations barely 1,000 feet from one another. No doubt space at the Midtown Mall goes for peanuts, but would a federal organization seek space simply to help a struggling property manager? Not likely. Then again, government entities routinely relocate their operations—sometimes to the point of inconveniencing the majority of their staff and customers—solely for the sake of stimulating economic activity in an underperforming area. It’s a toss-up. And, for the time being, the post office branch may be Midtown Mall’s most stable and lucrative tenant.

Perhaps I’m being unfair or dismissive to the remaining tenants at this location, but a trip through the rest of the space reads like a who’s who of Class C retail. Let’s go upstairs. Though this pic turned out lousy, it still captures the essence of the drab, uninviting aesthetics.IMG_7706The only businesses that seemed operational up here were two churches, Christ Center of Praise and Amanecer de la Esparanza. The other three office-oriented spaces were vacant…including the tax preparer.IMG_7708IMG_7707As on the floor below, this tiny second floor featured neglected pieces of furniture that hardly seemed ready for the landfill. And the loft offers expansive views of the first floor’s primary corridor.IMG_7709

Since the escalators are out of service, the only means to access the basement shops is to traverse that hallway from the above photo, returning to the original entrance that fronts Mechanic Street. Here are the downward stairs:IMG_7694The signs help identify two of the primary basement tenants.IMG_7695

Yes, the sign affixed to the door to nowhere says “Ghetto Gospel”. Here’s another angle:IMG_7712

Notice the floor behind the door to nowhere. Right up against the wall is a mousetrap, announcing to all customers that the Midtown Mall has a rodent problem—what a shock.

 

The basement offers a similarly bleak vista.IMG_7713

On this Saturday morning, one of the tenants appeared open: Clarrissa’s Hair Salon.IMG_7715I’m kicking myself for not getting a better pic of the piano, barely visible in the background left in the above photo. Unlike most of the other furnishings, it appeared in abysmal condition. Everything else in the basement of Midtown Mall was either shuttered or, like the Ghetto Gospel, a storefront church.IMG_7714IMG_7717IMG_7718Curtains seem to be the preferred visual shield for these churches. I’ve written about storefront churches on this blog more times than I can count, but they remain one of the more reliable indicators that a strip mall (or main street, or conventional enclosed mall) is charging rock-bottom prices to lease space. These churches, usually relatively new and lacking equity to build their own structure, must depend on cheap leases since they aren’t bringing in much through the weekly offering plate. Midtown Mall has at least five churches. I bet the place is bumpin’ with all that music on Sunday mornings—when all the other shops are closed.

For those who get to services a little early, at least they’ll have a place to sit and wait.IMG_7719

Squirt a little Febreeze on this sofa and I’m sure it would be fresh as a daisy. Looking upward, a ring of incandescent bulbs circumscribes the opening to the first floor.IMG_7720

Many are missing, and I’d wager the rest are burnt out. If trying to cut costs—as the owner to Midtown Mall inevitably is—the logical solution would be to rely exclusive on fluorescent lighting, as the owner to Midtown Mall inevitably does. Common are maintenance among the first features to fall by the wayside as a commercial building depreciates.  On my way back up the stairs, I noticed an elderly woman making her way to Clarrissa’s Hair Salon.IMG_7722Remarkably, she took the elevator to get down there; I’m glad for her that it worked.

I’ve waited until the end to show the façade for the obvious primary entrance to Midtown Mall, mainly because it’s such a retrospective beaut.IMG_7723At least the scaffolding indicates that someone has decided to give the façade a good scrub, however half-hearted the attempt might be.IMG_7724Truth be told, so little info exists on Midtown Mall that I thought it might completely slip through the cracks before it faces its demise and closure, which I’d estimate will happen within two to three years. No dead-mall fanboys have toured it. The only other chronicles come through a Worcester native Turtleboy Sports, but he mostly devotes his tour to snark rather than nostalgia or information. A vlogger covered it a few years ago, but dead malls don’t seem to be his specialty, and it has received considerably fewer views than the average dead mall tour.

Beyond that, Midtown Mall gets occasional press, both from the Mother Ship 50 miles to the east as well as more homegrown assessments that empathize with the beleaguered landowner by offering a spin that he is providing critical real estate for Worcester’s less moneyed entrepreneurs. (Considering that Midtown Mall remains over half empty, arguments for the “untapped demand” remain unconvincing.)

My suspicion is that Midtown Mall never attracted much attention because it was one of two enclosed shopping meccas to grace Worcester’s downtown. The other, Worcester Center Galleria, served as the primary centerpiece, offering over one million square feet of retail during its peak and pushing Midtown Mall to the periphery. Was it the competitor that forced our faded gem to assume the mislead name of “Midtown”? Possibly. The Galleria, which opened in 1971, stands out as one of the earliest efforts to revitalize the downtown of a smaller city through an enclosed mall. Like many urban renewal efforts, the Galleria required a dismantling and complete destruction of much of Worcester’s downtown, but it largely helped stave off the decline that many downtowns faced…at least for a time. By the mid 80s, metro Worcester welcomed other competing malls in the suburbs, and the Galleria floundered. Attempts to rebrand in the 1990s as an outlet center only spurred marginal and short-lived interest; by the mid 2000s, its latest buyer closed it.  It took another five years for demolition to commence, but the redevelopment strategies—some of which involve restoring the original downtown street configuration that the Galleria essentially annihilated—have yet to come into full fruition.

Amidst the life and death of the bigger, flashier Galleria, Midtown Mall prevails, clinging dearly to life despite patent evidence that it receives little to no money for maintenance or upkeep. Not surprisingly, it has a reputation for attracting a disproportionate number of police calls. Many of those dumpy, hoarders-paradise shops serve as fronts for drug deals, as a recent raid revealed five pounds of marijuana and shipping material. The Worcester Redevelopment Authority has long contemplated the most viable means of turning the property over to a party with the capital to engage in a complete redevelopment. Perhaps most interesting is that this authority, the Chamber of Commerce and other economic development entities have considered eminent domain—a practice that evokes the Supreme Court ruling for Kelo v. City of New London (2004), which remains the single most polarizing urban planning decision in the span of my career. Should a public agency have the right to condemn a viably functioning operation, purchase it and possess it solely for the purpose of handing it over to a redevelopment entity, to promote a higher and better use? If the City of Worcester should elect to evoke the Fifth Amendment and begin eminent domain proceedings, the ensuing controversy may propel tiny Midtown Mall into the center of the public eye, for the first time since the Woolworth’s closed. They might even find a buyer for that old credenza. Armoire. Hutch. Whatever it is.

9 thoughts on “Midtown Mall in Worcester (MONTAGE): The shopping center that never was…but somehow still is.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Oh, you’re flattering this place! It makes Westgate look like it could support a Neiman Marcus. Unless Westgate has sunk so low these last few months that they have visible mousetraps in every corner!

      Reply
  1. Todd

    That is such a hideous mall – I grew up around Worcester, went to high school there, and for about nine months after graduation (1999) from college at worked at the Social Security disability office that had access via the midtown mall. It has been a while and don’t recall much but a functioning diner on the first floor right around the corner from the elevators that brought one up to the offices. Surprised it hasn’t been demolished.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I don’t think there’s a long future for this mall…if we can even call it a “mall”, since it doesn’t even have space for an anchor tenant/department store. Was it ever a vibrant shopping destination? I’m impelled to believe it was never more than middling at best.

      The controversy of eminent-domain-as-an-economic-development-tool may prove to stymie any further change at Midtown…unless a buyer comes willing to tackle the entire operation (and the substantive costs). My guess is most economic development advocates don’t want to see the thing torn down, since it’s got the potential to serve as a viable old turn-of-the-century mixed use structure. But the potential–coupled with the stagnancy imposed by the current property owner–seem to leave it at a redevelopment stalemate.

      Reply
  2. Brian M

    The odd thing is statistics seem to indicate that Worcester is NOT a depressed, dying industrial city. It is rather wealthy overall?

    Reply
    1. Todd

      Could be a great city. They must have a half dozen colleges and universities in city proper, and there are parts of town that are quite nice in terms of neighborhood. For some reason though it just kind of muddles through. Granted it has been a few years since I have hung out there, but it always seem that every revitalization project that they engage in ends up a bit flat.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        You probably know better than I do, Todd, about the overall socioeconomic profile of Worcester. I’ll concede that I don’t know much of the city at all outside of its downtown. And if judging from the DT, it’s not a very prosperous place. It has definitely lost population since its 1950 peak, like most New England cities.

        But, in response to your question, Brian, I’d wager that it’s not too terribly depressed, given the eds-and-meds advantages that Todd mentioned. And, like many other formerly freestanding Massachusetts cities, it has been absorbed a fair amount into Boston’s widespread suburbanization. Not since 1970 has Worcester been its own Metropolitan Statistical Area, per the US Census Bureau. Depressed though its downtown may be, Worcester’s overall profile is probably better than neighboring cities Lawrence, Fall River, Lynn, Brockton, all of which are smaller and also loosely aligned with the Boston metro, though all are also much older than the typical Boston suburb. Then there are Worcester’s other peer cities in size: places like Bridgeport and Waterbury, CT, neither of which have the academic clout and are much, much more economically depressed. And though I’ve never been to Springfield MA, I hear it’s quite economically challenged as well.

        Most native New Englanders I know are fairly complimentary of Worcester, just as they are of Providence.

        Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Would it shock you if I told you it smelled bad too?! Yeah, it’s a shame that this place is sitting in development limbo. From the outside, it’s a pretty decent looking older building, once you remove that scaffolding.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are not required to sign in. Anonymous posting is just fine.