Executive Summary

The Blackstone Canal District Alliance, a non-profit organization in Worcester, Massachusetts, envisions a multi-use destination neighborhood for both tourists and residents to appreciate the history, culture, and businesses in the Canal District of Worcester. The Mill Brook section of the Blackstone Canal flows under Worcester’s Harding Street. The Alliance is building support for a revitalization of the Blackstone Canal and believes it will serve as a catalyst for economic growth. The Alliance tasked us with performing a cost and benefit analysis for the two main options of revitalizing the Blackstone Canal, restoration and replication.

Restoring the Blackstone Canal would involve unearthing the existing Canal, isolating it from city infrastructure, and then repairing it to pristine condition. Replication of the Blackstone Canal is another option for revitalization. The replication process would entail duplication or reproduction of the Blackstone Canal on top or to the side of the existing Canal.


The term urban blight describes the decrepit appearance of a city, or area of a city, that has experienced economic hardships (Gordon, 2003). Urban renewal projects are designed to reverse the rate of economic decline and urban blight within a city. This process is known as economic revitalization, which is defined as increased economic and aesthetic development within a city (Breger, 1967). One tactic for combating urban blight involves public officials and urban planners designing projects that bring economic and aesthetic development to a blighted city (Groberg, 1965). Cities have funded projects that develop vibrant urban centers and offer a variety of recreational activities, such as dining and shopping, in order to attract tourists as well as community residents (JÓKÖVi, 1992).

The Blackstone Canal District Alliance is focused on increasing economic activity and development in Worcester. Specifically, the Alliance wants to stimulate economic growth by revitalizing the Blackstone Canal in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts.

Since discussion of Blackstone Canal revitalization started, city planners, environmentalists, conservationists, and historians have had various opinions on which option for revitalization is the best for the city of Worcester (Magiera, 1999). In 2003, ICON Architecture Inc. conducted a feasibility study in which they analyzed the costs and benefits of a revitalized Blackstone Canal in Worcester (“Free the Blackstone,” 2003). The Alliance believes the next step is to conduct an updated and unbiased analysis of the costs and benefits of both a restoration and a replication of the Blackstone Canal to illustrate that canal revitalization is a worthy investment (Giangregorio, 2014).


The goal of our project was to conduct an unbiased cost and benefit assessment of both restoring and replicating the section of the Blackstone Canal that runs under Harding Street in Worcester, Massachusetts.  In order to complete this goal we developed the following five objectives:

1)      Identify relevant stakeholders of a Blackstone Canal restoration or replication;

2)      Identify the costs and benefits associated with restoration of the Blackstone Canal;

3)      Identify the costs and benefits associated with replication of the Blackstone Canal;

4)      Analyze potential costs and benefits related to a Blackstone Canal revitalization in Worcester; and

5)      Develop recommendations for the more beneficial revitalization effort.

In order to complete these objectives we researched similar waterway revitalization projects from across the country, including: the Capital Center Project in Providence, Rhode Island; the Bricktown Canal in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; the in-progress Canalside project in Buffalo, New York; the Canalway and Riverwalk in Lowell, Massachusetts; the Canal Walk project in Indianapolis, Indiana; and the River Walk project in San Antonio, Texas.

As part of our research, we interviewed decision makers and other knowledgeable individuals. We define a decision maker as any individual or group that could have a say on planning, funding, or other general decision making regarding a revitalization of the Blackstone Canal while knowledgeable individuals include people who could help our group identify costs and benefits associated with revitalizing the Blackstone Canal. Decision makers consisted of urban planners, city officials, members of Congress, and state representatives. Knowledgeable individuals consisted of historians, cultural experts, members of the Blackstone Canal District Alliance, employees of the Department of Public Works, employees of the Department of Transportation, economic development professionals, and tourism industry professionals. We interviewed these stakeholders in Worcester as well as aforementioned cities that have conducted similar waterway revitalization projects in order to help us identify and analyze costs and benefits associated with both a restoration and a replication of the Blackstone Canal. Furthermore, we analyzed our data to assess whether a restoration or a replication of the Blackstone Canal would be a more beneficial option considering the economic, social, and historical implications for the city of Worcester.

Findings and Recommendations

In order to deduce relevant findings, we analyzed the economic, social, and historic benefits of similar revitalization projects in order to show the potential impact of a Blackstone Canal revitalization in Worcester. These benefits include: increased tourism, domino effect of further private investment, increased property values, increased property taxes, quality of life, and increased aesthetic appeal. We also compared the costs and benefits of both a replication and restoration of the Canal in order to determine which option would be more beneficial to Worcester.

Increased Tourism

Increased tourism due to similar waterway revitalization projects shows the potential economic impact a Blackstone Canal revitalization could have in Worcester.Through content analysis and contact with professionals from tourism bureaus and organizations, we analyzed the impact of increased tourism in similar cities as a direct result of the various waterway revitalization projects. Higher weekend occupancy shows that Providence is more of a tourist destination than business center. This finding was supported by Martha Sheridan, the president and CEO of the Providence and Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau. Sheridan expressed that the Capital Center Project in Providence, which included Waterplace Park, allowed the city to transition from a weekday business center to a weekend tourist destination.

Domino Effect of Further Private Investment, Increased Property Value and Tax Revenue

Further private investment following the completion of similar waterway revitalization projects shows the potential economic impact a Blackstone Canal revitalization could have in Worcester. Professionals we interviewed in similar cities felt their respective waterway revitalization projects initiated public and private investment in the surrounding areas. The construction of these waterways attracted potential investors and developers to restore and reutilize old buildings or create new construction projects in other cities. Furthermore, these investments increased the property values and property tax revenue to the respective cities. The increased investment in Oklahoma City and Providence are shown in Table 1, below, along with the projects in Buffalo, Lowell, and San Antonio.

Table 1: Private Investment Resulting from Similar Projects

Project Private Investment
Capital Center, Providence $1.2 billion (as of 2014)
Bricktown Canal, Oklahoma City $109 million (as of 2009)
Canalside, Buffalo $305 million (as of 2014)
Canalway Riverwalk, Lowell $527 million (as of 2011)
River Walk, San Antonio $253 million (as of 2009)


Furthermore, a 2009 study, conducted by Larkin Warner, Ph.D in economics, for Oklahoma City’s Chamber of Commerce, analyzed 23 commercial properties in the Bricktown District of Oklahoma City. The study showed a 337% increase in these property values between when the Canal was completed in 1999 ($10.8 million) and 2004 ($36.3 million) (Warner, 2009). While other factors may have contributed to these increased property values and subsequent tax revenue. Warner’s study suggests that the implementation of a waterway in Bricktown is, at least partly, responsible for these increased values.

Increased Quality of Life

Quality of life improvements were a recurring theme in cities that had undertaken similar projects. By increased quality of life we are referring to the increased enjoyment residents in the area can expect to experience as a result of the Blackstone Canal revitalization. The waterway revitalization that had the most evidence to support improved quality of life was the River Walk in San Antonio. Out of 186 people residing in Bexar County, Texas who visited River Walk, 30% said they came for the quality of the experience and 16% said they came for the value of the experience.  From this we can deduce that just over 40% of the Bexar County residents surveyed went to the River Walk because they thought they would enjoy their experience. If you take the entire survey as a whole, 167 people or 89.78% came to the area of the water feature for some sort of experience that would enhance their quality of life. Figure 1, below, shows the results of this study.

quality of life

Figure 1: Bexar County Residents Visiting River Walk (Nivin, 2014)

Increased Aesthetic Appeal

Increased aesthetic appeal due to similar waterway revitalization efforts show potential impact in Worcester. Oklahoma City’s Bricktown Canal, for example, helped transform and revive the Bricktown area into a “vibrant community center” as seen below in Figures 2 and 3 (Carpenter, 2014).

before                                    after


Figure 2: Bricktown Canal Before (Carpenter, 2014)                                                      Figure 3: Bricktown Canal After (Carpenter, 2014)

Harding Street in Worcester, Massachusetts has several blighted areas that would benefit from the increased visual appeal a revitalized Blackstone Canal would potentially bring.

Events and Programming Along Similar Waterways

Events and programing along similar waterway revitalizations and construction projects maximize the potential of a revitalized waterway. Examples of these events can be seen in Figures 4 and 5, below, which show the WaterFire Festival in Providence and the Water Taxi tours in Oklahoma City. Figure 4, depicting WaterFire in particular shows a large number of residents and tourists who visited Waterplace Park in order to attend the festival.


Figure 4: WaterFire: Providence, Rhode Island


Figure 5: Water Taxi Tour (oklahomablogger.com)


Restoration v. Replication

In the following section we compare a restoration and replication of the Blackstone Canal in Worcester. We discuss the associated costs of both options as well as any benefits applicable to each option. This comparison allowed us to determine which option would be more feasible for the city of Worcester.

State of Blackstone Canal, Combined Sewar Overflow System

Commissioner of the Department of Public Works for Worcester, Massachusetts, Paul Moosey, explained how Worcester utilizes the Mill Brook section of the Blackstone Canal under Harding Street as a storage tank to aid the water treatment process during increased storm water collection. This system is known as a Combined Sewar Overflow system, or CSO. A Combined Sewar Overflow system is a single “pipe” that collects rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater (Environmental Protection Agency, 2014). After a tour of the water treatment facility on Quinsigamond Avenue in Worcester, we learned that the Canal is necessary for helping the plant meet Environmental Protection Agency standards for discharging treated water.

Restoration Costs

Paul Moosey claimed that a restoration of the Blackstone Canal would be significantly more difficult to implement than a replication. When taking into consideration the complexity of the Combined Sewer Overflow, and structural integrity of the existing Canal once uncapped and unearthed, the costs would be on the magnitude of hundreds of millions of dollars. If the CSO was not an issue, he claimed a restoration may be equivalent or less expensive than a replication. Between saving money in excavation and concrete costs and applying it towards the cleansing of the bricks and supporting the structure, the costs of a restoration would be comparable to the cost of a replication. Considering Worcester’s existing funds, and the functional practicality of the Canal as a CSO for the city of Worcester, Moosey did not believe restoration is feasible enough to do a proper restoration assessment.

Replication Costs

Paul Moosey helped us estimate costs of replicating the Blackstone Canal. We also contacted Wachusett Precast Inc. to obtain approximate material costs of a replication. Furthermore, we utilized a 2003 feasibility assessment titled “Free the Blackstone,” conducted by ICON Architecture, and applied an inflation factor to all existing values to estimate an adjusted inflation price. Using this assessment we calculated the replication cost to be approximately $19,204,791.

Creating statistics from all of these different assessments gave us the best estimation on the potential cost of replicating the Blackstone Canal, while minimizing our percent error in each direction. The arithmetic mean of the collection of cost estimates would be one interpretation of our calculated data for the cost of replication of the Blackstone Canal. The range, mean, and median of our cost estimation can be seen in Table 2, below.

Range $13,704,291
Mean $20,501,802
Median $23,290,581

Table 3: Range, Mean, Median values for replication estimated costs

Historical Authenticity

A replication of the Blackstone Canal rather than a restoration would not detract from the amount of visitors a revitalized Canal could expect to see. Susan Ceccacci from Preservation Worcester, Chuck Arning from the National Park Service, Bill Wallace from the Worcester Historical Museum, and multiple members of the Blackstone Canal District Alliance agree that, while a restoration would be preferred, a replication of the Canal could be just as successful at promoting the Canal’s role in history.  Using materials that would imitate the original stonework would ensure that a replication look historically authentic.  Also, these professionals agreed that small historical exhibits or features along the Canal could further promote the Canal’s role in the Industrial Revolution.

Replication Benefits

Replicating the Canal at street level rather than restoring the Canal below street level could maximize visitor expenditures at businesses along Harding Street. Both a replication and a restoration of the Blackstone Canal would lead to an increase in visitor spending in Worcester, especially at potential retail businesses and restaurants along Harding Street. Chuck Arning from the National Park Service felt a replication in particular would maximize visitor spending along the Canal. According to Martha Sheridan of the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Economic Development Office in Indianapolis, other waterway revitalization efforts such as the Canal Walk in Indianapolis and Waterplace Park in Providence did not reach their full potential on a retail front due to the fact that both water features run below street level. A water feature on street level in Worcester would ensure anyone walking along the Canal would be exposed to all the potential storefronts and dining options.  A restored Canal would not allow for a water feature on street level.  Therefore, a restored Canal could possibly limit the development of successful retail and other business along Harding Street.

Replication would allow for more flexibility in the design and construction of both the Canal and the surrounding streetscape. A restoration and a replication of the Canal in Worcester would benefit the overall look and feel of the surrounding area, however a replication allows for the flexibility to get creative in the design of the water feature. Many public officials such as Jeannie Hebert, the President of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, Martha Sheridan, the President and CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, and National Park Service Park Ranger Chuck Arning felt that the up close interaction with the water would be better exhibited in a replication rather than a restoration.


Due to the extenuating cost of separating the CSO system, all the benefits that would come with both a restoration and a replication of the Blackstone Canal, and several benefits that favor a replication over a restoration, our group recommended that the Blackstone Canal District Alliance and the city of Worcester promote a clear vision of a replication of the Blackstone Canal along Harding Street. A single vision of the final product would allow for the Alliance, Worcester Municipal Government, and the Worcester Community to be on the same page and would allow for more focused discussions on the revitalization in the future.