DEVENS — At the Joint Boards of Selectmen’s (JBOS) May 13 meeting, Harvard Selectman Ron Ricci referred to a MassDevelopment posting in the Harvard Hillside, requesting community feedback on two developers dueling housing proposals for the vacant Vicksburg Square properties.
“I felt a little uncomfortable with doing that,” Ricci said. “Going out on a limb here,” Ricci guessed none of his JBOS peers had weighted in either.
“It would be a better way of doing it if MassDevelopment reached out to the communities to find out what we wanted and framed their proposal based on what the communities want,” Ricci said. “The developers have the project for a few years — we have it for eternity,” he added.
Ricci chairs the JBOS subcommittee to study Vicksburg Square’s development as it relates to the four communities — Devens, Ayer, Shirley and Harvard.
In an April 27 letter, the Harvard Board of Selectmen suggested to MassDevelopment that it and the two developers in the mix host a series of public hearings in the Devens, Ayer, Shirley and Harvard (DASH) communities to gather sentiment publically. The JBOS will consider co-signing a similar letter at its next meeting on May 27.
“This will allow them [the developers] to adapt their proposals so the content of the proposals will include the necessary consensus for approval at a future super Town Meeting,” the letter reads. A super Town Meeting attempt failed June 6, 2009 when Ayer Town Meeting voted against a zoning change to enable residential and accessory retail use for the Vicksburg Square buildings. The buildings are currently zoned for technology innovation uses, which never gained much traction.
Ayer Selectman Rick Gilles noted that of all the concerns Ayer Town Meeting cited last summer “none of them have been addressed. You’d run against the same problems. It doesn’t matter what’s built there. If the issues are unresolved, they’re unresolved.”
Harvard and Shirley Town Meetings approved the proposed zoning change last summer, but Ayer Town Meeting opposed the rezoning, nixing the then-proposal. “Yes” votes are required by all three towns to affect changes to Mass. General Law Chapter 498 and the Devens Reuse plan, in this instance, with regard to the Vicksburg Square zoning.
Ayer Selectman Frank Maxant will draft the letter to Governor Deval Patrick to address the JBOS concerns.
UMass Lowell — Devens Dorms?
Meanwhile, Maxant briefed the JBOS on efforts he, former Ayer selectman Pauline Hamel and other Ayer officials launched in recent months to cajole UMass Lowell leaders to consider locating both dorm space and a proposed nanotechnology center at Vicksburg Square.
Maxant described the UMass response over the winter to be a tepid, “Probably ‘no,’ but . . .”
Since the Ayer-UMass meeting, Maxant cited a May 10 Supreme Judicial Court ruling, voiding a developer’s contract to build a 400-student dorm for UMass Lowell to lease. In the Lowell Sun, UMass Lowell spokeswoman Patty McCafferty reacted by saying, “Right now, we continue to look for affordable, innovative ways to provide housing for our students” and indicated the school was not immediately going out for new bids on student housing.
Maxant said UMass Lowell is cobbling together housing. For the 2008-2009 school year, the college temporarily housed students in the Radisson Hotel in Nashua until the school bought the former Double Tree Hotel, now known as the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center.
Maxant says, mileage-wise, Vicksburg Square is as far from the main Lowell main campus as the Nashua hotel was but would keep the state college students here in Massachusetts.
“We’ve got rail” access, Maxant said and noted Vicksburg Square is “already built for dormitory type housing” having partly served that function in its prior life as Army housing, classroom and office space.
Maxant suggested that the JBOS “pick up the ball” and seek a follow-up meeting now with UMass Lowell “to see if we can gauge their interest now with these changed circumstances.”
Maxant noted that the price is right, as MassDevelopment Director of Land Entitlements Ed Starzec offered UMass the Vicksburg Square buildings for $1, making the potential dorm space “reasonably priced” and noted that Devens lends itself to a “campus-type atmosphere for them as opposed to a hotel in Nashua.”
Let’s meet “our place or theirs, whatever” Maxant said, “I’d image they’d be happy to host us if their interest is strong enough.”
“Maybe we can get some traction on it,” said Ricci, and asked Administrative Assistant Liz Garner to gather potential meeting dates for MassDevelopment and UMass.