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$96 million renovation plan for downtown Worcester approved by state

The changes might result in demolishing the oldest standing theater in the city.

This map outlines the area of downtown Worcester where a massive revitalization plan will take place over the next 20 years.

This map outlines the area of downtown Worcester where a massive revitalization plan will take place over the next 20 years.

The City of Worcester on Thursday got the green light to embark on a $96 million plan aimed at reviving a lagging downtown scene, and it might result in demolishing the oldest standing theater in the city.

The Urban Revitalization Plan was approved by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, the city said in a statement. Worcester will implement the proposed changes — which include acquiring and repurposing neglected downtown properties — over the course of the next 20 years, city spokesman John Hill said.

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“We’re excited that they’ve cosigned our vision for downtown Worcester,” Hill said. “There’s already a lot going on and lot of private investment going on downtown right now, and this is our way to say, ‘OK, we’re not going to be satisfied, we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

The 143-page revitalization plan lists 21 properties and six condominiums that the city said are lagging in development. Some have been vacant for more than 20 years. Some are obsolete and not likely to see private investment. Others are just in need of an upgrade, according to the city.

The redevelopment projects are all set to take place in a large, busy area. The project spans 118.4 acres of downtown Worcester and encompasses City Hall and the Worcester Common.

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The city has a variety of ideas for what to do with the properties, though a lot of the specifics are still up in the air. Businesses could be displaced, structures renovated, and land acquired through eminent domain. Worcester is proposing that several properties be repurposed to feature retail on the first floor and commercial or residential use above. Some buildings could also be demolished.

Front Street in downtown Worcester, MA on Friday, October 11, 2013(Jackie Ricciardi for The Boston Globe)

Renovations will take place on Front Street, among several other roads, in downtown Worcester.

The city hopes to “create a more livable, walkable, vibrant downtown Worcester,” Hill said.

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The potential cost of the investment could reach $96 million.

“Worcester’s Urban Revitalization Plan is another part of the development equation to pursue our shared goals of strong communities, vibrant downtowns, and long-term economic growth,” Chrystal Kornegay, the state undersecretary of housing and community development, said in a statement.

Managers at The Money Stop, which the city hopes to acquire for redevelopment, declined to comment. Owners of the Great Wall Chinese restaurant — also up for acquisition — could not be reached.

Two of the properties slated for possible demolition include two historic theaters in Worcester, the Olympia Theater and Paris Cinema.

The Olympia Theater is the oldest standing theater in the city and made Preservation Worcester’s list of “Most Endangered Structures.”

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“We would really oppose it being demolished because of the integrity of the area,” Preservation Worcester Executive Director Deborah Packard said. “It’s a challenging building. It’s a big project but…we’re optimistic that someone will see the value in it.”

The now-vacant Paris Cinema is set to be demolished.

The now-vacant Paris Cinema is set to be demolished.

Packard said demolition of the theater should be a last-resort option, and Hill said it will be. The city will first look at ways to repurpose the theater and keep the 125-year-old building standing.

Packard said she hopes the city can work with the owners of the theater to still use the property as “some kind of theater,” such as a comedy club. If not, the building could be sold and used commercially.

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On the other hand, the Paris Cinema building is likely to be demolished. In June, the owner petitioned to waive the city’s demolition delay ordinance, due to the deterioration of the building’s interior structure.

Hill stressed that, from this point forward, the entire process will be “flexible.”

“We’ve identified these properties [for possible demolition]; that doesn’t necessarily mean the city’s going to rush right in, take all these properties over,” Hill said. “It’s a more careful process than that. We’re not simply going to take over properties.”

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