DEVENS — Who should start the ball rolling on reviving a development plan for the vacant Vicksburg Square on Devens: MassDevelopment’s chosen developer, Trinity Financial of Boston, or the selectmen for Ayer, Harvard and Shirley? The Joint Boards of Selectmen (JBOS) for the three towns pondered a preferred approach at their Aug. 26 meeting.
At the June 2009 Super Town Meeting to try to rezone Vicksburg Square for residential use, Harvard and Shirley Town Meetings voted yes. Ayer Town Meeting said no, nixing MassDevelopment’s request to broaden the buildings’ innovation and technology uses.
This time around, a developer has been named. Trinity Financial President Jim Keefe has indicated his company will commit to the project, depending on whether a consensus is possible roughly by year’s end. Trinity’s November 2009 filing stated a preliminary intention for 250 housing units.
JBOS Chairman Ron Ricci asked his peers to consider hosting public forums in their home towns to gather feedback for the developers.
“I think the general consensus is, we wanted to be in a position of reaching out to our communities. Invite the developer if he wants to come. If we say ‘no’ too many times, they’re going to say these guys are too tough to work with.”
Ayer Selectman Jim Fay disagreed. Fay said the developer, not the towns, should lead the discussion forward. Throwing the leadership to town residents won’t be productive, Fay said.
“I’m not sure they know what they want. I’ve heard from this table that that’s the role of the developer. I’m not sure I can hold a meeting and say ‘what do you want at Fort Devens?’ and get a good response. They don’t know what’s possible yet until a developer tells them and then they can pick and choose. Let him do the work,” Fay said.
Ayer selectman Carolyn McCreary agreed.
“We need someone who has more depth of knowledge of what’s economically possible. We need to have someone come in with the possible options of the reasonable reuse laid out before us,” she said.
Trinity’s initial filing pledged “a community outreach effort that proactively engages and promotes consensus.”
Their winning application introduced the company’s development team: ICON Architecture, the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, engineering firm McPhail & Associates, consulting service Meridian Associates, environmental management and permitting by Epsilon Associates and transportation design from Woodland Design Group.
Fay said Keefe professes an interest in preserving Vicksburg’s military history and is sensitive to not developing the square to compete with surrounding towns’ businesses.
Still, Fay said with 800 units on the market in Ayer, a housing-heavy Vicksburg reuse plan is bad for Ayer.
“I’m not sure that housing is a very good idea. And this is me talking, not him. That would be up to him to decide,” said Fay.
Ayer Selectman Frank Maxant suggested the buildings are strong enough to wait for the perfect plan and encouraged leaving the 440,000 square feet empty instead of rushing to fill the space with housing.
“Vicksburg Square would suffer no structural damage… Let this property be an asset temporarily until we find the use that’s the one we want. Let’s not rush for the sake of bricks and mortar,” Maxant said.
The idea didn’t sit well with Devens Commissioner Rick Bernklow.
“So it’s not 400,000 square feet at the entrance to Ayer where everyone sees it every day and everyone wonders what the heck is going on. Ayer Town Hall got a nice renovation job. I get very upset hearing Vicksburg Square should just sit there,” he said.
“You like the idea of 350 tenements?” asked Maxant.
“Yes I do,” said Berknlow, “It’s not tenement, Frank. You don’t know what tenements are. I’d like it to have multiple uses but one is probably going to end up as housing. The floors are not set up for Innovation and Technology uses. You have to go upstairs to get in every building.”
Fay said, “Housing is a negative. So, if that’s the case, I’m not sure what Trinity can do if they don’t have that housing element on their business plan. People in Ayer want people to move into Ayer.”
Ricci said a Harvard resident he’d talked to encouraged residential uses for Vicksburg Square.
“He said the use for that building is residential. I’m an engineer. I’m not a developer, but he made a pretty good point. Have some mixed use, some younger people, some older people, maybe some assisted-living. My thought then is have folks express what they want instead of saying ‘I don’t want housing… I don’t want that… I don’t want this,” Ricci said.
Ricci suggested Devens Committee members should be at the Town Meetings. “They’re the ones most directly affected by it,” he said.
“Every tax bill of property owners in Ayer will be affected because three-fourths of it (Vicksburg Square) is in Ayer,” said Maxant.
“Maybe we can solve the problem very simply,” said Harvard Selectman Peter Warren, “Change the boundary lines so that all the boundary lines are in Harvard.”
Fay said that unlike last summer’s failed rezoning push, he won’t be a spokesman for change this time around. He handed the political football to Maxant.
“I want to pass the ball. I want to chair JBOS and become Ayer (selectman) chair. I know that’s rather ambitions of me but that’s my goal,” said Fay. “I’d like Frank to be the lead on this. I can’t do something I don’t believe in. I don’t think we will get a good response. Frank, I wish you well but it won’t be me leading the charge on this one and I think that’s just the wise thing to do.”
Ricci stressed again the importance of community meetings.
“We have to be the ones judging what the people want. If 10 people show up at three meetings and Frank writes a report, that wouldn’t be accurate. Maybe it’s Trinity, maybe it’s not. They have to decide if they want to do it,” he said.
Maxant said he’d told Keefe that the towns would try to provide direction and feedback.
“He was very definitely in ‘listen’ mode. As to where this project would fit in the communities needs, I told him we’d try some meetings. Ayer and apathy both begin with “A” and that’s no coincidence.”
Harvard Selectman Tim Clark suggested that community meetings without preliminary materials from the developer would be hard to spark.
“Is there anything to respond to? A schematic? This is where it gets hard…. I’m hard-pressed to believe with Boston and North Shore development that they’re not equipped or familiar with the process by which you get the public in love with your project. The really successful projects get neighborhood support but you need to push back against something. If this is foreign to them, then they’re the wrong developer. We’ve got to chew on something. We can start with housing. That may be the answer. Maybe we say 275 housing units.”
Fay said “there’s a good case for saying wait out the economy. The buildings are virtually indestructible.”
Maxant seemed to agree. “It’s a mistake to take something to solve an immediate problem. The buildings are there for the long term. We have to make sure we have something go in there that’s an asset in the long term.”