Summit: Transit Key to Growth, Resilience for Cities

At the 7th Annual Gateway Cities Innovation Institute Awards and Summit, keynote speaker Christopher Coes urged several hundred attendees to envision a country in which no matter where or who you are, you can live in a place that’s “healthy, prosperous and resilient.”

Telegram & Gazette

By Susan Gonsalves

WORCESTER, Mass. -- Worcester and other Gateway Cities should embrace the opportunity to grow by increasing mobility and stimulating reinvestment with transit-oriented development.

That was the message of the Seventh Annual Gateway Cities Innovation Institute Awards and Summit held at the DCU Center on Wednesday. The theme of the event was "Catalyzing Transformative Transit-Oriented Development."

Keynote speaker, Christopher Coes, vice president of land use and development at Smart Growth America, urged several hundred attendees to envision a country in which no matter where or who you are, you can live in a place that's "healthy, prosperous and resilient."

Coes noted that transportation is the second largest expense for U.S. households, with the average household spending 47% of its income on housing and transportation. Later, he mentioned that no Massachusetts resident should be spending more than 41 percent on those two expenses.

He spoke in favor of compact mixed-used development with multi-modal access to jobs and neighborhood services. He said such a model reduces spending, relieves congestion, connects people to better jobs, lessens environmental impact and stimulates economic growth.

Coes also spoke about the attractiveness of "walkable places" for companies to locate, noting that such places are beneficial because of the ability to find and retain workers, build brand and culture, and be closer to customers and business partners.

"The value of place is more important than tax credits," he said.

Coes is also a leader at LOCUS, a group of real estate developers and investors who believe TOD can revitalize communities and make them more sustainable, equitable and walkable.

The speaker went on to offer "crazy ideas" to catalyze transit-oriented development, including "recapturing your sense of place," by changing zoning to allow for a mix of uses, thinking about pedestrians and bicyclists, and expanding sidewalks, planting trees and making the community vibrant and affordable.

Other ideas were to launch a Reconnect Massachusetts campaign and expand rail services; leverage federal opportunity zones; and be the first state to design a Gateway Cities TOD fund.

"Massachusetts Gateway Cities have all the right ingredients. Don't mess this up," he said.

Following his speech, Coes said that the time has come for Gateway Communities to unite with a common vision and invest in people.

Communities like Worcester are on the front lines of being what it means to revitalize, be inclusive and prepare for a future of change," he said.

Coes noted the city had done some hard work, re-orienting its land use to promote a more walkable atmosphere, a place people like to hang out, but it has "a long way to go."

"Even doing small things ... we can see pockets of growth," he added. "People should be excited ... and fight for what makes Worcester, Worcester. Now's the time."

Following his address, three panels featuring regional leaders were consecutively held on the topics of mobility, development and growth.

The discussions brought up the need for state-wide investment in commuter rail, encouragement of the younger generation to take advantage of public transit, the need for designated bus lines and a re-vamping of transit scheduling to make it faster and more convenient for users.

Panelists also talked about acquiring distressed buildings and turning them into a combination of housing and "where people go to spend money."

The discussion on growth featured Ramon Borges-Mendez, associate professor of community development and planning at Clark University. Among other initiatives, he is working on economic reconstruction in Puerto Rico, food systems reform in Worcester, and urbanization and climate change in Sri Lanka.

A luncheon followed with keynote speaker Guillermo Penalosa, founder and leader of the Canadian nonprofit 8 80 Cities as well as the first ambassador of World Urban Parks.

MassINC, organizer of the event, presented 2019 Gateway Cities Champion Awards to Mayor Bill Carpenter of Brockton, state Sen. Harriette L. Chandler, D-Worcester, and Trinity Financial, real-estate developers that have been creating urban mixed-use sites across several northeastern states -- including renovating the former Worcester courthouse into apartments.

Recipients of the 2019 Gateway Cities Innovation Awards included:

  • IGWorcesterMA, a place-branding and marketing initiative started by Giselle Rivera-Flores and Jamie Flores on Instagram initially to highlight local leaders, businesses and entrepreneurs through social media posts. They created Woochella, an indoor music festival that attracted 5,000 people and a Digital Influencer Summit, among other events.
  • Davis Publications, a 100-year-old art education publishing company that transformed its seven-story Printers Building in Worcester into a makerspace, two art galleries and an incubator for clean-tech companies.
  • Tricia Pistone, senior vice president at the Montachusett Opportunity Council, who was instrumental in rail service and transportation infrastructure programs for Fitchburg and the North Central Massachusetts region.
  • North Shore Community Development Coalition, which built more than 400 housing units for low-income families in the El Punto neighborhood in Salem and other North Shore cities. It also supports the state's first Urban Art Museum.
  • Alexandra's Boutique, one of the world's largest providers of designer bridal gowns that has invested in Fall River's South Main district. Alexandra's Too has opened on the ground floor of the former Capital Theater, which the company is working to revitalize as a public event venue.
  • Valley Venture Mentors, a Springfield-based nonprofit providing mentorship and accelerator programs to transform entrepreneurs into successful employers. VVM is credited with connecting Western Massachusetts to the global marketplace and creating more than 800 jobs for the region.
  • Love the Ave, a community group working with city officials to catalyze New Bedford's north end commercial corridor, Acushnet Avenue. To date, the effort has led to infrastructure and streetscape improvements including wider sidewalks. The group has also organized two restaurant week promotions, created murals and other public art and hosted cultural festivals.
  • Himanshu Bhatnagar, founder of a Lowell-based software consultancy, HB Software Solutions, that has cut in half the state's costs for delivering Health and Human Services shared rides, inspired hundreds of new business starts and supports agencies in more than a dozen states.
  • Rob May, the director of planning and economic development in Brockton, who has created a Downtown Urban Renewal Plan to turn around declining property values and neighborhoods by attracting private and public investment.
  • EL Taller, a Lawrence coffee shop and bookstore started in 2012 by Mary O'Brien Guerrero that hosts events like a writing club and an initiative to help high school students with college essays and financial aid forms.

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