WORCESTER, MA-Construction of a 350,000-sf shopping plaza along Route 146 is set to begin in June following planning board approval of the project. Worcester Crossing, a $30 million retail center being developed by Madison Properties, is being constructed on the site of a former US Steel manufacturing plant.

“We’re excited about getting started,” Madison Properties president Denis Dowdle tells GlobeSt.com, an understandable reaction after nearly three years of site work, neighborhood meetings and permitting machinations have finally paid off for the Boston-based real estate firm. The first phase will entail construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, followed by a 57,000-sf addition of smaller retail and restaurant options. The final phase will produce another 80,000 sf of retail space.

Madison’s signature project is a 502-room hotel in Boston’s Seaport District that itself just gained city approvals, but Dowdle counts himself more as a retail specialist. The 43-acre Worcester parcel, he explains, was appealing due to a mix of market demographics, limited supply and $170 million in roadway improvements done along Route 146 in the past decade, changes which Dowdle says have made a major difference.

“That is really going to open Worcester up to the rest of the world for the first time in many years,” he says, estimating at least 15 minutes has been shaved off for travelers coming from the east. As a result of the better access, many new development opportunities are emerging.

“The Blackstone Parkway/Route 146 connection between Worcester and Providence is one of many public and private initiatives in Worcester coming to fruition,” concurs assistant city manager Julie Jacobson, who praised Madison for being among the first developers to recognize the potential of the changes. “Worcester Crossing will be an important generator of jobs and economic activity that will benefit the residents of Worcester and the region,” Jacobson says, with projections of 700 full-time positions.

Besides the Wal-Mart commitment, no significant leases have been signed, but Dowdle says there is an encouraging level of interest among prospective tenants. Atlantic Retail Properties is listing agent at Worcester Crossing. Serving not just the Worcester population of 175,000, the center is also expected to draw from nearby communities such as Auburn, Milbury and Westborough.

“Historically, Worcester has been under-retailed,” Dowdle says in assessing the competition. Armed with the city’s blessing, the developer says he hopes to have the first phase ready for shoppers by the third quarter of 2008.

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