SHIRLEY -- MassDevelopment is launching what may be its final push to save historic Vicksburg Square, according to a low-key pitch that Richard Henderson, Executive VP for Devens Real Estate, presented to selectmen Monday night.
"I'm here to restart the rezoning conversation," Henderson said, referencing that this was a do-over of a request it has made before to rezone Vicksburg Square for redevelopment. In fact, it's the third try. "This is our best last shot," he said.
The most recent effort was in 2012, when a Boston developer, Trinity, made the rounds with a grand rehab plan for the handsome but deteriorating brick buildings at Vicksburg Square. Vacant now for many years, the buildings have been boarded up and fenced off, Henderson said, but vandals have done damage and time continues to take its toll.
The last plan called for rezoning the area -- currently zoned for innovation/technology, or small, "incubator" businesses envisioned in the Devens Reuse Plan -- as mixed use to create a commercial/residential complex with 80 percent of the housing units ranked "affordable."
Original zoning proved unworkable and there were no serious offers to remake Vicksburg Square in that image. Henderson noted that another, similar try in a Jackson Road building didn't muster much interest, either. With 30,000 square feet set aside for the purpose, the building isn't fully occupied, he said.
Still, the mixed use idea didn't quite fly. Subject to all-or-nothing approval at simultaneous Super Town Meetings in the three stakeholder towns - Ayer, Harvard and Shirley - the proposal failed. Shirley supported it, as Henderson pointed out.
Noting that this would be only one of the stops on his rounds and that the re-development plan on the table now is still a work in progress, he said the new version has no commercial component and no developer in hand, yet. It focuses on residential units only.
"How many residents?" Selectman Debra Flagg asked. She also wanted to know how children who might live there would be educated.
Henderson said it's too early to pinpoint a number, but the Trinity plan targeted 250 residents, with businesses on the ground floors. "It would vary, depending on the developer," he said. As for kids, the kind of development envisioned - with one and two bedroom units -- doesn't "typically" bring families with children, he said, implying singles and empty-nesters might move in. As for the affordable piece, the agency is committed to 25-percent, he said, but the benchmark could be flexible: "moderate" rather than low-income.
Currently, Devens' school-age kids who attend public school are educated in Harvard under a contract with MassDevelopment. Some go to the Parker Charter School in Devens, Henderson said.
He told the board his agency aims to make the same pitch to the Devens Committee and other stakeholders, including other boards and public officials in the three host towns, Ayer, Harvard and Shirley, whose historic borders were disrupted when the Army created Camp Devens and now lie within the 4,000-acre plus footprint of the former Fort Devens, which closed more than 20 years ago.
With input from the towns and under the auspices of MassDevelopment, the state agency charged with redeveloping Devens and with its temporary governance, Devens has been transformed into a civilian enclave with industrial plants, other businesses in some of the old military office buildings, a small residential community and a tidy commercial complex, Devens Common.
As the agency nears full buildout of Devens' residential map, Vicksburg Square looms large.
Henderson said this could be the last chance to redevelop the historic centerpiece. He didn't say what happens if it fails.
Built as military barracks in the 1920's, during the thriving early days of Fort Devens, the four main buildings in the Vicksburg Square complex -- which also includes four smaller brick buildings fronting Devens Green, the sprawling former parade ground -- later housed the Army Intelligence School and for a time, MassDevelopment headquarters. One small building was once a theater. Another became an on-site substation for the Massachusetts State Police, which serves under contract as Devens' police force.
Sketching the Devens success story to date, Henderson said 3,200 jobs lost when the military base closed have been replaced and then some, with 5,000 jobs today. The big picture continues with 40 new housing units and 160 more in the pipeline, including the next phase at Emerson Green and a senior housing project slated for an area off Hospital Road in Shirley. Other projects included Regional Dispatch and Household Hazardous Waste centers in Devens and meeting affordable housing goals.