The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) facility in Worcester, Massachusetts, may not fit the traditional notion of a historic U.S. building, but in a classic case of “function over form,” its renovation will provide a vital cornerstone in the redevelopment of the downtown. Originally constructed in 1961, the building and its systems had not been upgraded in 30 years, all the while providing central Massachusetts with transitional housing, domestic violence services, and early education and daycare, in addition to health and fitness options.
“It’s not a ‘pretty’ building, so when they said it was historic, we thought, ‘There’s no reason that building should be saved at all,’” says Roberta Brien, vice president of projects for the Worcester Business Development Corporation (WBDC), as well as the president of the board of directors for the YWCA, often referred to locally as “the Y.”
That was about five years ago, when the WBDC was preparing a master plan of the downtown. Cognizant of how valuable the downtown Worcester real estate was becoming, the YWCA began contemplating selling the property and using the proceeds to create “something special” in a different location outside downtown. “But no matter what we sold the land for, we knew we just couldn’t afford to replace the pool, which is a critical component of our health and wellness programs,” says Brien.
In addition, members of the YWCA strategic planning committee determined that it “would be really difficult to build all of the different multiservice programming needs for the facility from scratch,” says Linda Cavaioli, YWCA central Massachusetts executive director. “We realized that as a building more than 50 years old, we could qualify for historic tax credits, and because we were in the downtown within the redevelopment area, we were also eligible for New Markets Tax Credits, and it became clear that we would have a better financing strategy if we stayed where we were.”
The YWCA tapped Essex Preservation Consulting to assist with getting the building to qualify for state and federal historic tax credits. And despite its limited exterior aesthetic appeal, the building—with its unique exterior features and sleek oak paneling, marble fireplace surrounds, distinctive staircases, and built-in cabinetry on the interior—was deemed a prime example of the International Style design first developed during the 1920s and 1930s.
But it was not necessarily the historic significance of the architecture that sparked the interest of Bank of America, which provided $2.86 million of federal historic rehabilitation tax credit equity investment for the project, as well as a grant from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation to expand the number of supportive housing units—it was the nature of the YWCA’s core mission.
“The YWCA is located within a low-to-moderate-income census tract [a poverty rate of approximately 40 percent], and is providing basic services for low-to-moderate individuals, so [this project] tells a fantastic story,” says Claudia Robinson, a senior vice president specializing in tax credits at the Bank of America and a longtime ULI member. “And it promotes women, so our interest had less to do with Worcester as a [redeveloping gateway city] or the historic aspect—although I love the historic aspect—[than] as the human story.”
The YWCA was identified, along with the abutting Worcester Public Library, as a “key destination within the district” in the city of Worcester’s Downtown Urban Revitalization Plan in 2016. Up until two years ago, the YWCA was the only certified provider of infant to pre-K child care in the downtown. “For a while we were the only game in town, and I don’t think we did a good job of advertising that for the downtown employees,” says Brien. “So we decided if we were going to stay, we had to become part of the fabric of downtown and more well known—and I think this renovation project did just that.”
The $26 million restoration broke ground in January 2020. When the pandemic hit and much of the state was shut down in early March, the YWCA was able to respond to the needs of the city. “When the governor closed child care services, we (as well as three other Worcester nonprofits) were allowed to open two days later as emergency child care for health care and frontline workers,” says Cavaioli. “We never really closed. We just took a day or two to retool our temporary space.” As restrictions eased, the YWCA was able to offer remote learning for Worcester Public School students in need of support, as well as continuing to operate their other programs such as transitional housing and domestic violence services (remotely) with minimal disruptions.
In staying true to its stated mission of “eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all,” the YWCA entered into a partnership with its construction manager Consigli Construction, signing the city’s first community benefits agreement. The contract promised and delivered on an all-women-led construction management team, living-wage jobs with benefits by employing 100 percent union contractors, and an emphasis on diversity and the hiring of local women and people of color.
The renovation of the 74,310-square-foot (6,900 sq m), five-story building included the installation of all new mechanical, electrical, and heating systems, as well as the replacement of all windows. The top two floors were expanded to 47 newly renovated single room occupancy (SRO) units of supportive, safe transitional housing for women age 18 and older who come to the YWCA from domestic violence, are in recovery for substance abuse, or have mental health issues. The floors also feature renovated shared kitchens and bathrooms, and space for children to visit. Residents continued to have access to the various support programs that prepare them for independent living as well as access to the health and fitness center throughout the construction process. The renovated ground floor now provides 147 slots for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers of state-licensed, nationally accredited child care, and the facility also includes three youth spaces, the gym, the pool, and the public meeting space. All of the construction was completed while the facility remained fully operational.
“This project is a physical restoration that honors the historic elements of the facility while bringing it up to code and efficiently and effectively enhancing the existing space,” says Cavaioli, who will retire at the end of the year after nearly 30 years at the helm. “It’s really beautiful.”
Historic tax credits have played a significant role in the financing of the redevelopment of downtown Worcester in recent years, with many of the historic structures that were once class A and B office properties being converted into mixed-income apartments. The recently completed former Worcester courthouse, for instance, was converted into 118 affordable apartments, partially financed with federal and state historic tax credit equity. “Historic tax credits are critical to a lot of the projects,” says Brien. “The construction costs don’t change from Boston to Worcester, but the rents do. It’s great that Worcester is affordable, but it also means that we need more public subsidy in these projects, and the historic tax credits are hugely important.”