WPI Journal  
Volume CI, No. 4 - Spring 2000

Rewriting a Poem in Stone

By Bonnie Gelbwasser

Three WPI alumni played central roles in the long-awaited renovation of Worcester's Union Station. Now complete, the beautifully restored transportation center has become a symbol of efforts to revitalize New England's second-largest city.

The gateway to Worcester has reopened. Completed in 1911 at a cost of between $750,000 and $1 million, the city's Union Station was a transportation center that linked railway and streetcar service. Once called a "poem in stone," the 90,000-square-foot monolith in Washington Square was long considered one of New England's architectural treasures. It featured a terra cotta exterior with twin towers, stained glass windows, and ornate plasterwork.

Many immigrant families got their first glimpse of Worcester when they stepped off a train and into the grand concourse of Union Station. By 1917 there were 25 daily trains to Boston; 17 others traveled each day to Springfield and to other towns to the west. In the station's heyday, in the 1930s and 1940s, up to six million people passed through it each year on as many as 43 trains operated by three different railroads.

The growing popularity of the automobile in the years following World War II was the beginning of the end of the first chapter in the station's useful life. Intercity streetcar service ended in 1945; a decade later, the opening of the Massachusetts Turnpike enabled travelers to get to their destinations quickly, without the confines of the railroad timetables. The last passenger train departed Union Station in 1963; the last tenant, a barbershop, closed in 1976.

By the time the Worcester Redevelopment Authority purchased it in 1994, Union Station had been reduced to a ghostly shadow of the elegant building that once dominated the Worcester skyline. Deserted for more than 20 years and assaulted by vandals and the weather, the station was a crumbling, dingy shell facing the near certainty of the wrecking ball. The rescue and restoration of the building is one of the great triumphs in the ongoing revitalization of the downtown of New England's second largest city.

As executive director of the Worcester Redevelopment Authority, Michael Latka has helped bring about two of the cornerstones of the city's revitalization: Union Station, seen here, and the new Worcester Medical Center.

Three WPI alumni, John H. McCabe '68, chairman of the WRA board of directors, Michael Latka '71, executive director of the WRA, and Cindy Blondin '92 (M.S.), the WRA's assistant director of engineering, have been instrumental in restoring the station to its former glory. In November, a grand ball celebrated the completion of the $24.8 million first phase of the project; Amtrak and MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority) train service will begin operating later this year, shortly before the doors open to the community. In short order, the WRA says, ridership is expected to climb to more than 1,000 passengers a day.

Union Station came to life again briefly during Worcester's First Night 2000. Thousands of revelers came to the station for the opening ceremonies at noon on Dec. 31 and stayed on to be entertained by musicians representing some of the city's more than 70 nationalities, who played late into the evening. Many returned to the station on New Year's Day for the Millennium Multicultural Community Festival of music, exhibits and dance, the culmination of this once-in-a-lifetime weekend.

McCabe, Latka and Blondin had good reason to cheer for the new year and for Union Station. They've spent much of the last two years working with regional, state and federal agencies to transform the facility into an attractive public building that will serve the city and the region well into the 21st century.

McCabe, a management major, is president of Automated Assemblies Corporation in Clinton, Mass. A former president of the WPI Alumni Association, he has received the John Boynton Young Alumni Award for professional achievement and the Herbert Taylor Alumni Award for Service to WPI. He joined the five-member WRA board nearly a decade ago. He says the board had three goals for the Union Station project. "Our primary goal was to achieve a historic restoration--to restore the original look of the building. The second goal was to create an intermodal transportation facility, and the third was to make Union Station a destination point for economic activity outside of the realm of transportation by attracting private developers to the building."

Latka holds a management degree from WPI and an M.B.A. from Western New England College and is a member of the Urban Land Institute, the American Institute of Certified Planners and the American Planning Association. He was assistant city manager for development and director of the city manager's Office of Planning and Community Development before being appointed to his current post in 1991.

"Union Station is the focal point of a $1 billion economic development effort that includes a medical complex, a convention center, an outlet mall, and the Massachusetts Turnpike/Route 146 connection projects," says Latka. "The city needs Union Station to strengthen the success of these projects, facilitate the movement of people in and out of downtown, and increase community activity and pride."

As executive director, Latka works with a six-member staff, under the oversight of the board of directors, to identify and implement urban renewal plans within Worcester and to secure funding for them. In recent years his focus has been split between the four-year, $43 million Union Station restoration and the nearby $280 million Worcester Medical Center project.

Blondin completed her bachelor's degree in civil engineering at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass Dartmouth) in 1983, then spent the next four years working for a contractor and taking courses toward her WPI master's degree in civil engineering. After receiving her Massachusetts construction supervisor's license, she moved on to a job with an engineering company. She completed her M.S. in 1992 and joined the WRA in 1993.

Federal and state funding in a ratio of 80/20 has supported the revitalization of Union Station, which is now on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Like the structure itself, the restoration efforts, which began in earnest in 1997, have been monumental. "Our first priority was to install a temporary roof in an effort to dry out the building," says Blondin. "We then brought in the general contractor, who made the building weather-tight to allow the subcontractors to begin work.

"The project has a design team of architects and structural, plumbing, electrical and mechanical engineers, plus a construction management team. There's also a general contractor with 20 subcontractors, such as painters, masons, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and cement finishers. I also work with the city, the Massachusetts Highway Department, the Department of Environmental Protection, and other state and federal agencies, and the Providence & Worcester and CSX railroads."

Cindy Blondin, the WRA's assistant director of engineering, says the complex renovation project employ-ed a host of sophisticated materials and techniques.

"The WRA board played an active role in managing what was a very difficult historic restoration," McCabe says. "Our responsibility was to be sure the project fell within its financial constraints. The results were borderline spectacular. There were fewer than 40 change orders, and they had the effect of less than 5 percent on the overall budget."

"A major project like Union Station or Worcester Medical Center requires you to utilize all of your academic and professional experience," says Latka. "Financial, engineering, planning and political skills are all stretched to the limit. But the satisfaction of restoring a historic structure or creating new opportunities for economic development where decadent and blighting influences have languished for years is indescribable. That defines public service for me."

Working out of WRA offices recently moved to the station, Blondin and Latka say they thrive in their jobs despite the pressures. "The project management components of my master's program have been important to my work," Blondin says. "At WPI, I learned about estimating, budgeting, reporting and contract law. Because I work with many consultants and contractors, it's imperative for me to understand contracts, which were the bases of my master's thesis. What I learned about scheduling has also been quite useful. Union Station was a complicated restoration project with a specific completion date. We developed a schedule at the initial design stage that allowed us to budget funds and select accurate starting and completion dates for each of the construction components."

While restoration teams have been sensitive to the structure's architecture and history, they have looked toward its next 100 years by incorporating technologically advanced products and materials where appropriate. "We've used 'real' materials like marble in areas where people are likely to touch the walls, and the terrazzo flooring is consistent with the original floors," Blondin says.

The twin towers that graced the original station (they were removed in 1926 because they leaked and had been weakened by constant vibrations from moving trains) have been rebuilt. "We chose fiberglass panels for the exterior of the restored towers because they are stronger, lighter and more cost-effective than the original stone," she says. "That enabled us to stay within budget. Inside the building, some of the plaster has been replaced by fiber-reinforced gypsum that was cast into molds and applied to the walls and ceilings."

The WRA recently hired Finard & Company, a Burlington, Mass.-based commercial real estate firm, to develop and market the station and several adjacent parcels. Approximately 200,000 square feet of space is proposed for development into a retail and entertainment center.

Now that the first phase of the renewal is complete, Latka is concentrating on the financial partnership components of the complex form of historic tax credits through to the master developer agreement with Finard. Partnerships with the MBTA and Amtrak and leasing deals are in the works.

Blondin has shifted her focus to several related WRA projects, including a 500-car parking garage and a five-stall bus depot (scheduled to open late in 2002) that will be connected to the station via a corridor beneath the railroad viaduct.

"Union Station is situated on a rotary whose traffic pattern makes it difficult for pedestrians and vehicles to access the building safely," says Blondin. "We are currently in the design phase of a proposal to replace the rotary with a four-way 'signalized' intersection. When it is completed in 2001, the redesigned roadway will also free up space in front of the station for a plaza and two large development parcels."

In addition to their work with Union Station, Blondin and Latka have been involved in the planning phase of several WRA projects for older, industrial areas of the city and are overseeing the final phase of Worcester Medical Center, including construction of a 1,000-car public garage and environmental cleanup.

In 1987, when the top photo was taken, Union Station was falling apart, the victim of two decades of neglect and weather. Today, after a $43 million renovation project, the building has been restored to its former glory. In the near future, passengers will again pass through this grand concourse, ready to board trains bound for Boston and other destinations.

Developed by Tenet HealthSystem, Worcester Medical Center replaced Saint Vincent Hospital, which moved into the complex recently. The center includes a modern 299-bed acute care teaching hospital and over 180,000 square feet of physician office space. Outpatient offices are adjacent to inpatient beds to enable doctors to be available to all of their patients at any time, and traditional nursing stations will become small caregiver units to create a quieter, friendlier environment.

"This was a major undertaking that involved the aquisition of public property by eminent domain, preparing the property for development, and then selling it to a private developer," McCabe says. The focal point of the complex is a 19,000-square-foot atrium. With three glass-enclosed elevators, a waterfall, retail space and extensive landscaping, the atrium serves as a place for members of the entire community to meet and to attend special events.

Busy as she is, Blondin stays connected to WPI by serving as a sponsor to several Major Qualifying Projects. In a recent MQP, students analyzed the Providence & Worcester Railroad's viaduct and developed a plan to relocate the structure. "The WRA is now in the preliminary design phase of this project," says Blondin. "Some of the concepts the students came up with are being looked at by our design team." Other WPI projects have focused on the Union Station and Worcester Medical Center parking garages.

Blondin is building a satis-fying career at the WRA. "I am proud to be part of the team that is bringing Union Station to life," she says. "Everyone who has seen the building is impressed with how beautiful it is. What most will never see is all the technology--the sophisticated materials and equipment--that will enable this landmark to shine as the city's transportation center well into the future."

What people will see in the restored Union Station, McCabe says, may be just as important. "For years after I-290 was constructed, people looked at the station, an icon in decay, and saw a symbol of Worcester. Many people thought that until the station was destroyed or rebuilt, we would never be able to change that image of the city. Now, when those new towers are lit up at night, the station will become a beacon for a revitalized Worcester, a landmark the city can be proud of once again."

Last modified: Jun 14, 2000, 10:15 EDT
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