By Bonginkhosi Vilakati
Walking across the road from Wright Hall to Goddard Library has always been a hassle for students at Clark University, especially in winter storms. Trying to cross Downing Street, which passes between the two buildings is not only a threat to pedestrian safety but to drivers themselves during the winter season.
Sidewalks are often covered in snow banks, making it hard for pedestrians to see oncoming cars and the road is usually slippery. All of that is about to change. Clark University will close part of Downing Street, and turn it into a pedestrian plaza.
In a statement to members of faculty, staff and students, David Angel, Clark University’s incumbent president said that the university will embark on the new project of turning Downing Street into a pedestrian plaza.
“I am pleased to announce that Clark has reached an agreement with the City of Worcester under which we will pursue the closing of a short section of Downing Street, from Florence Street to Woodland Street, to create a pedestrian plaza for students, staff, and neighborhood residents,” reads the statement in part.
The administration at Clark University has been advocating for this agreement for a long time. However, such a change does not come cheap. Clark is set to part with close to $2 million for this project, $1.5 million of which is to be paid for renovations of University Park. According to Angel, part of the agreement with the city of Worcester is that Clark will close part of Downing Street and renovate University Park in collaboration with the city and the Main South neighborhood at the cost of $1.5 million. Angel also highlights that the University will make voluntary annual payments to the city of $262,000 with a 2.5-percent escalator each year. “The University already pays the city $112,000 yearly on tax-exempt properties and will make an additional $150,000 annual payment over the lifetime of the agreement,” the president’s statement says.
From the city’s perspective, Clark obtaining ownership of Downing Street will bring an additional $150,000 per annum to the city’s coffers and University Park will look like never before, after having gone under a complete overhaul with Clark University bearing most of the cost. Clearly, the city council had all the reasons to agree to the terms of this agreement. Clark University, on the other hand is set to benefit by increasing the continuity of its campus, and increase pedestrian safety within its campus.
The ‘Closure of Downing Street’ project will coincide with the design and construction of federally funded streetscape improvements for Maywood, Main, Downing, and Beaver Streets. It’s an opportunity for Clark to work with the city in creating the so-called Main South Gateway for the city.
Angel stated in his press release that he believes this project will strengthen the university’s strong ties with the Main South neighborhood. Clark is already involved in a number of community outreach initiatives, which include revitalization efforts in the Kilby-Gardner-Hammond area and University Park Campus School, to name but a few. As part of its commitment to contribute to the local community and the city of Worcester, the University has also agreed to contribute funds to support the operations of the Worcester Public Library.
Another salient benefit that comes with the project is the reduction of traffic across Clark University campus, making it safer for students and visitors to move around.
“I believe the closing of the section of Downing Street will accomplish two things,” says Clark University Police Chief Steven Goulet, “Number one it will decrease the potential traffic hazards our students encounter when they cross Downing Street and it will also allow our campus to have more lawn areas, which will be an improvement in my opinion.”
Goulet’s endorsement is good news to Clark’s administration. But that endorsement is not unilateral for many local drivers who will now have to drive around to Maywood Street or Charlotte Street to access Park Avenue from Main Street.
The message of the closure of Downing Street has been received with mixed emotions by Clarkies. Fathimath Ahmed, a junior at Clark supports the idea.
“I have always been scared to cross this road, and I am happy that there will be no more cars. So, I will walk with much ease,” Ahmed says.
Tatenda Kandugure, also a junior at Clark, believes that the amount of dollars to be spent on the project could have been ingeniously used elsewhere.
“Instead of curbing traffic across campus, I think the school would have tried to reduce human traffic at night, thus making campus safer,” says Kandugure. She adds that a pedestrian plaza could potentially be a target for crime at night.
Another concern is campus accessibility. Asked whether alternative access routes to Clark are being considered, Steven Goulet pointed out that the access route from Florence Street will remain open.
“Access to the commuter section of the garage can still be done by coming up Downing Street. With much less road to travel this should mean that cars will not be travelling at such a high rate of speed upon entering the garage from Downing St. For both pedestrians and motor vehicle traffic this means less potential for an accident,” Goulet says.
Other students have also raised concerns that closing Downing Street is tantamount to shutting the campus off to the community.
In his written statement, Angel remained optimistic the end result will be positive: “I welcome this new phase of mutual cooperation and growth with Worcester and look forward to these important improvements to the Clark University campus and our neighborhood.”