By Mary E. Arata
AYER — Same presentation, different outcome.
Tuesday night, Ayer hosted the third in a trilogy of town public hearings regarding plans to renovate four enormous brick buildings on Devens, formerly used as Army housing and a hospital, and repurpose the structures into a maximum 400 unit housing development.
Shirley’s public hearing was on Monday night, and Harvard’s was last week.
The difference between Harvard and Ayer’s meetings is striking. Public comment and questions were limited to 5 total in Ayer and the entire hearing lasted approximately a half an hour. Not so in Harvard, where the Q&A as well as the total running time was approximately double the number of comments and questions and lasted twice the length of time for Ayer’s forum. In Ayer, it was prescheduled that the hearing would cease after a half-hour in order for another hearing regarding the FY 2010 budget.
It’s a curious difference, as 60 percent of the Vicksburg Square acreage lies within the historic boundaries of Ayer. The other 40 percent of the property lies within historic Harvard.
The MassDevelopment rezoning project, in concert with the Joint Boards of Selectmen, are proposing enabling zoning changes to permit residential reuse of the quadrangle surrounding the Rogers Soccer fields in the maximum amount of 400 units.
But it’s being left to potential developers to determine the exact number of units to be developed. Left unsettled, therefore, are the exact number of affordable versus market rate rental or owner-occupied units. Also up in the air is how to divide the projected affordable housing “credits” between the towns of Ayer and Harvard.
Ayer Selectman and Joint Boards member Jim Fay led the presentation. He said the four main buildings of the seven-building square were built in the late 1920s through 1940.
“They’re built well and they’re still standing,” he said.
Fay detailed plans to redevelop the 20-acre Vicksburg Square of largely mothballed buildings into affordable rental or owner-occupied housing, while still honoring and preserving the military history and designed footprint of the buildings. He estimated the development costs to be anywhere between $25 million and $50 million.
Under the proposal, the existing zoning designation for the area as an “Innovation and Technology Center” would be scrapped in favor of a new zone — the Vicksburg Square Redevelopment District.
The new district would focus on multi-family residential uses (including condominiums and/or rental units, elder housing, nursing homes or health care facilities) with provisions for light accessory and supportive retail shops. Approximately 100 units, a quarter of the project’s maximum projected residences, would be either affordably priced or have affordable rents.
Specific details on the plan are not available, as ultimately developers will bid on the project, subject to ongoing feedback from the Devens Enterprise Commission.
First, the individual Boards of Selectmen must put the matter to voters via a “Super Town Meeting,” when simultaneous town meetings would take place in Ayer, Harvard and Shirley. Public tours of the buildings in advance of any Special Town Meeting were discussed as possible after a precautionary sweep can be completed to ensure safety. It is projected that site preparation and construction could begin as early as next winter.
Five comments were allowed from the audience before the meeting was brought to a close.
Ayer resident Martha Craft called for a mix of low and moderate income housing at Vicksburg Square, “that’s usually the most successful housing.”
Fellow resident Dennis Curran suggested that to allow retail expansion around the project would permit “cannibalizing” of other neighborhood districts and downtown Ayer businesses.
However, Devens resident Armen Demerjian sees the opportunity for Ayer businesses differently. “When you think of 400 (housing) units, think about 800 mouths to feed,” he said.